Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Home Again

Nell is home, but we are chastened now by the experience of this week. Everything seems a little bit different; while the house hasn't changed, we have. Sleep is a real need for all of us. Thank you, Lord, for the people of OCPC, for the rest they are giving us for this weekend.
There is a lot to digest right now; it's hard to believe that it's only been two days. It feels like about 10. We thank the Lord for each of you who is with us on this journey. For those who have the urge to call, please resist it. I'm getting bronchitis, and Nell and Martha need to sleep. We appreciate all the concern, but the best way to show it is to just keep praying.
I'll keep you posted in the new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Thank God that doctors can be wrong.
The DWI profile (nothing to do with arrests, but a MRI protocol that spotlights strokes in the brain) is apparently not as foolproof as the doctor who read it at 12:00am said it was. This morning, all the grey heads came together, looked at the films, and explained what was there. Neither of the two bright objects in the DWI profile was a stroke. Praise God.
But... (on this road there is always a but) what happened last night was what is called transient ischemia, or a series of T.I.A.'s, or transient ischemic attacks. This is usually the prelude to a major brain attack, or stroke. The doctors agree that this is why we did the operation last week in the first place.
So, this is what is happening: Nell's left brain is starved for oxygenated blood. We put a new artery down to bring blood to that part of her brain, but the brain must grow the capillaries to tap into the supply. This takes time (3 months). In the meantime, the starvation goes on. So, we are in a horse race between supply and demand. At least supply has a week's headstart.
Thank you for the prayers. One of my favorite quotations:

As night alone enables us to see the stars,
so suffering alone illuminates
the brightest truth of God.

Night brings out the stars
As sorrow shows us the truth.
In the nightmare of these last 24 hours, your prayers have been the truth of God to us. God has granted us rest through them, strength in them, and hope when it seemed all hope was gone. We have been able to breathe deeply through the pain and fear because of the Holy Spirit's power breathing through you. Never, NEVER doubt the power of prayer. Never stop praying.

The New Road

At 6:15, while she brushed her hair, Nell began to have two strokes. One is in the speech center, near the surgical site, the other is deeper in the brain in an area that controls touch and skin sensitivity. The doctors are confident that she should recover from both, but at this point hold out little hope that this is the last of them. This night has put two new moments into the horrible picture album of pain that is this path the Lord is leading us on.
Nell is in ICU at Children's. We are breathing on your prayers. Lord, have mercy on Nell. No more words.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Home for Christmas

It's 2:30, and we're all home on Christmas day. Everyone is very tired, but very happy. This present was enough to unwrap today. We rest in Christ's peace. May that peace bless you this day. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Nell is out of ICU, eating and drinking, putting on her clothes, getting her IV's out, and getting ready to come home, maybe even tomorrow. I thought that just having her ok today was enough, but God has given us more than we could expect or deserve.
Some have been asking me, "do you HAVE to preach tonight, on Christmas Eve?" Yes, I have to preach-- if I didn't I would explode from the need to praise Christ my Lord, to share His love, and to declare His presence.
Emmanuel, You have proved Your name once again. You are God with me, with Nell-- with all of us. Come, Lord, into the heart of every person who darkens the door of any place of worship this night, and fill them with Your light, Your love, Your life, so that this Christmas may be for them what it is for us-- a celebration of joy for hope that cannot fail, life that cannot die, truth that cannot change, family that cannot dissolve. Bring them into Your presence, O Lord, and make them part of Your family not just for one holiday-- make every day they live holy, set apart for You. Thank you, Lord for giving more than I deserve or could ask. Merry Christmas to each of you out there, and for anyone reading this who is privileged to preach tonight-- bring them to Jesus.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Good News

It's been a long day-- got on the road to get back to the hospital literally 5 minutes before freezing rain drove 4 trucks off 67 into the ditch and closed the road for a couple of hours. At 7, Nell was in the ready room, and we had a chance to pray together. Neither Nell nor Martha had slept much.
5 pastors came by, and the General Presbyter prayed with me as we waited the 4 1/2 hours the surgery took after 1 hour of preparation. About 1:45, Dr. Sacco came out, gave us Nell's hair that they had had to shave, and put the most amazing photograph in front of us. "It all went well," he said. "Here's what we did..." and with a picture of Nell's brain opened up, he showed us the intricate stitching and path that he had taken the artery on as he had sewed it into her brain.
After one gets over the shock and awe of looking at the picture, the reality of the artistry of this surgery overwhelmed me.
Nell was moving all her limbs, and when we got to see her about an hour later, she was talking and doing well. Her first questions were to make sure that Martha had eaten breakfast and she had slept in the waiting room. At least she ate breakfast!
So many nurses and doctors took such good care of us. Nell is sleeping in ICU, having already drunk some apple juice. She is in some pain from the head clamp she had to wear, and from her neck. But all is well. All we need to do now is make it through the next 24 hours without complications, and we are well on the way to recovery.
Praise God for your prayers, and for the wonderful way Christ has held us in the palm of His hand. Praise God for David Sacco, who has found his calling, a high calling, and exercises it with such compassion and precision. Praise God for the piece of Belgian lace that he tatted into the wonder of God's blessing to us: Nell's mind.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Long Day of Waiting

We got to the hospital at 9:00am, negotiated the admissions process by 11:00am, got settled in the hospital room at noon. The I.V. got put in at 4:15pm, and when I left at 7:00pm, the first bag of saline solution was being hung.
Everything is kind of in slow motion in this Christmas week. So many little children; so many loving parents. So much service and sacrifice. Being at Children's Hospital is like being admitted to a strange kind of co-op apartment building, where the kids don't know the rules not to talk to strangers, and the parents all recognize in each other's faces that we share a bond not all parents share. Short conversations that hold much more than words bind us together. It is a special place, where a lot of the blinders that we can afford to wear in the "normal" world are too expensive and impossible to keep on. We look at the reality of how fragile our beloved is, and all of the sudden we discover that our love for them, their love for us, is power enough to keep going through the next treatment/appointment/adventure. And in short rides on an elevator, smiles in the hall, or conversations in the parents' kitchen, we find out that love is power enough to make us family with people we've never met before.
After the slow motion of today, we've been pushed to the front of the line tomorrow-- kickoff is 7:00am now, with surgery starting at 9:00. I'll communicate once we're on the other side. We are living on your prayers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Facts

Here's what's happening next week: our daughter Nell goes in to Children's Hospital on Monday for pre-operation prep (the dreaded loss of hair on the left side of her head). At 10:30 on Tuesday, she begins a 5-hour procedure that will involve cutting a 3-inch diameter hole in her skull, shaping two smaller holes into the skull and the 3-inch diameter circle, sewing the vein that runs along the surface of the skull to the brain, and then re-attaching the 3-inch circle with the smaller holes aligned to protect the vein.
Nell will be in ICU for approximately 24 hours after the operation, and then will be in a room until she can eat, drink, and do all the other things every human being's body does in a given 24-hour period. Then she will come home, probably Friday. The major risk/side effect is stroke; so please be praying with us that we get to Christmas without Nell having a stroke.
Now that we are almost "in the chute," there are lists of things to do and get, lots of boxes to check, and enough chores to keep us busy and not thinking too much. Sometimes work is a blessing! I will be updating this blog as events unfold (probably won't be able to do that until evening/night), so stay tuned. Send on the blog to others who may want to know. The one thing we need from you is prayer; if you know of any prayer chains, feel free to pass on a prayer request for Nell.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!

What a day. I am ashamed to admit it, but I started this day at work the way I do too many-- frustrated at people slow on the uptake, driving for a finish line on business and not paying very much attention to who I have to run over to get to it.
Wretched man, that I am, who will save me from this body of death? But thanks be to God... for the one who came in and delivered us from a secret need; for the prayers that I can feel pouring over us as we all get more and more nervous, and try not to show it to each other.
And so I come to the end of this day with one prayer, one awesome vision that has never left me since I was changed 30 years ago: O, the deep, deep love of Jesus! Vast in measure, boundless, free-- rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me-- over Nell-- over the O'Neil family, Marlene's family-- over Oak Cliff-- Dallas-- the world.
Whether I ride the wave happily or unhappily, He carries all of us homeward. And as I ride the wave, I watch those dying on the banks, thinking that being dry is being safe, and my heart breaks for them. Wretched man that I am-- but I am a man. Take my life, and make it Yours, Lord! Fill me with Your love. You are all I need! I surrender all of me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Getting Bigger in the Windshield

We are now at D-day minus 8 to the next adventure in the great school of our lives as a family. When our daughter Nell was 4, she was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that causes tumors to grow along the nerves of the body. The most interesting cases (may you never be interesting to research doctors) are centered in the brain, where Nell's has always been.
I call our struggle the great school because Jesus Christ has taught us all so much through the terrors and trials and frustrations and miracles of this journey. My standard summary of blessings has been that the lessons are invaluable, but the tuition is very, very high.
Suffering is the great school; there just might be a connection between the spiritual immaturity of the average American Christian and the fact that we spend more on pain relief in one year than what would be necessary to guarantee every man, woman, and child on the earth safe drinking water.
We must pick up our cross if we are to follow Jesus. I have been reflecting as Nell's surgery comes closer on December 23 on the cherished illusions we use to deflect our call to pick up the cross.
Nell should not be, by all medical studies and probabilities, who she is. Almost all NF kids have severe learning disabilities; Nell is #1 in her class. Almost all NF kids are of extremely short stature; Nell broke through 5 feet before she stopped growing. God has miraculously removed 3 threats to her short life, which no doctor could adequately explain.
I grew so confidant of triumph, that I thought we had crossed into the promised land when puberty finally passed, and what had been described as the worst that this disease could throw at us was in the rear view mirror.
This neurosurgeon has brought us back to the reality that there is still a lot to face in front of us. Every suffering that we have weathered was dismissed by a brush of the hand, a sigh, and an exclamation of "Boy, I'm glad that's over!" We now have to face the reality that that exclamation is just another illusion. There's always going to be something else.
The Lord led me to a new understanding of what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 12: Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
The cross stays with us, to remind us that we are weak-- that Christ is our strength. Three times I have thought that we had left this disease behind us. No matter what happens next Tuesday, Your grace is sufficient, Lord. Let your power be made perfect in our weakness.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Learning to Converse Again

One of the lost arts in the last 25 years has been the art of talking, even arguing, with those with whom one disagrees in civil conversation. It is possible to love those with whom one strongly disagrees, contrary to the evidence of our current institutional life.
Civil conversation is, like all the great arts of life, learned through modeling and practice more than through formal instruction. That is why the lack of conversational modeling and practice are the accelerant to all the destructive forces in church and society.
At Oak Cliff, it is precisely this modeling continued through the generations that has enabled us to embrace a mission of racial reconciliation in Christ. Some lessons I have had reinforced here:
  • We have two ears, and one mouth. To be used effectively, they must be used proportionately. Listen twice as much as you speak (hard for pastors).
  • We must assume that everyone belongs at the table-- it is God's job to judge, and none of us deserve the invitation we have received from Christ to belong.
  • Our identity in Christ can only be embraced if we let go of all lesser identities--even (especially) the good and cherished ones.
  • We are each created, saved, and called individually-- we have to come to know each other the same way.
  • All forms of group judgment are ultimately lazy ways out of the hard work of loving. Hard work produces a greater reward.
  • The hard work of loving is impossible without the hard work of praying, studying the Word, and living in total obedience to what our study reveals to us.

Rebuilding a civil society at this stage is going to be a long haul. I probably won't live to see it, but I will spend my life to build it in the hope that Christ's Church can grow vibrant and strong again in the public square in America.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Changing the Game

Now Newsweek is adding its 2-cent deficit of thinking to the gay marriage debate. SIGH. I am tired of yelling, "no, it's not!" as much as advocates must be tiring of yelling, "yes, it is!"
It seems to me that Jon Meacham's editorial is a perfect example of the only lasting gift of the Baby Boom generation-- meaningless, endless self-referential, self-righteous destruction. Winning is everything-- anything that has to be destroyed for me to win, burn it up, bomb it, tear it down. If I think you're wrong, that means I don't have to understand what you're saying, I have to stop you from being able to say it. And all this destruction is so that I can stand on the ash heap of Western civilization after I have destroyed the last "enemy" and shout out into the desert wilderness that was once a living world "yes it is!" and have that be the last word.
Enough. God save us from another Baby Boomer President; did it really matter whether he was a Democrat or a Republican? God save us from our current cultural and institutional leaders. Being right does not confer power to ignore the commandments of God; the toxic way this debate rages on drives out the faithful, and leaves only the loud, the brash, the brazen and violent. No one wants to be part of any institution that has as its core value, "I'm the leader and I'm right, so you either tell me I'm right or I will banish you." Life played out as a zero-sum game has no winners. Everyone loses.
Let's find a quiet corner to put the Baby Boomers, with enough round-nose scissors, construction paper, crayons, and glue to occupy themselves until they can run off to retirement and get on with the task of rebuilding what they have spent their working lives tearing down.
And for Boomers on both sides of these issues: we who are younger are not with you, on either side. We're tired of circular firing squads and bracing games of Russian roulette, where you always seem to be the coaches, and you expect us to be your team. Enough.
Let's get on with the business at hand. And Boomers, if you want to help out, do us a favor: sit down, find some humility, and try listening for a while.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Way Back-- Look for a Way Forward

I missed the Moderator's modcast yesterday for a good reason. I was trying to find a way forward. I've read Beau Weston's paper, and am an avid follower of his blog, But the paper, and most of our conversation, hit on the major reason we can't find our way: history, especially recent (last 500 years) history, is not a guide. It is an obstacle.
Our terms of conversation are still wrapped up in a Christendom Christianity which has no traction or power in our current circumstances. Why does the church exist? In Christendom, the right response is, "how dare you!?" That doesn't work now. The idea of respect for tradition's sake has never had a great deal of credence in America-- there must be more of an explanation for the hope that is within you than that it was in your parents. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is not a Scotch/Irish Cultural Heritage Society. But we lack a vocabulary to talk about first things-- we get queasy when we have to talk about Jesus-- see my other posts below about being different.
Beau is right-- we have to create a new centripetal force inside this denomination, something (I would say Someone) who/which draws us together, holds us in the midst of serious disagreements, and creates a common language which can remind us we are not strangers or enemies, but blood relatives. That something/someone will not be an establishment that through the gravity of its Charleton Heston voice and sociological peer pressure says, "Come!" It will be a voice that calls to all who have ears to hear, "Go! And go together!"
I hope that what Shannon Kershner and I did yesterday is a start on that task in Grace Presbytery. Shannon and I do not see eye-to-eye on the major issues before us: but I respect Christ's call on Shannon's life as a preacher of the Gospel. I appreciate her willingness to serve Jesus Christ with all that she has, and I believe that that appreciation and respect are mutual. If Grace is willing to open up that communication and respect, then we can learn to talk again. If we can talk, we can come closer to understanding one another. If we understand, we can support one another's ministry with integrity. If we can support one another, we can encourage our growth individually and communally in Christ as we seek to re-evangelize a culture that believes it has been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and found Christendom Christianity to be a false religion.
"By this shall all people know that you are my disciples," Jesus said: "if you have love for one another." The path of the past is a trip to nowhere. We're on untrodden ground-- the last footprints the Church left here are almost 2,000 years old. If there's any history that can guide us, it is in that ancient apostolic age, where the only establishment was for tentmaking.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

Dallas, Texas and Detroit, Michigan have a lot in common. Both cities are dominated by minority populations, while the Anglo majority lives in a safe series of suburbs outside the city limits. Both cities are deeply divided by race and class; both live with the anger, pain, and fear those divisions create. For both cities, the 1960's represent a tragic acceleration of those evils which still scar them both.
But for Detroit, the 60's are memories of burned down businesses, blacks and whites murdered in cold blood, whole neighborhoods bulldozed, and hate spewed back and forth across the divisions until the hate talk was the only talking done.
In Dallas, no business (that I know of, correct me if you know more) was burned. The anger, pain and fear drove white flight, but did not erupt into widespread physical violence.
In Detroit, I know a white pastor who walks and prays his neighborhood with his congregation, seeking to love in Christ his neighbors who are not like him. Their ministry of reconciliation in Christ is struggling; he has been threatened at gunpoint for knocking on the wrong door.
As I write this, teams of two are out walking our neighborhood, white and black together. No one has ever been threatened; they will pray with many neighbors today if the past is any predictor. The Lord is blessing the ministry of reconciliation in Christ here, as OCPC grows in numbers and in depth of understanding of Christ's call and commands.
I write this for this reason: the conflicts on the homosexual ordination issue inside the PC(USA) will resolve one day. If the way we fight is with guns and bombs (rhetorical and sometimes all too real), the wounds from this conflict may never heal. While it may seem to many to be betrayal, I believe that a moderated, reconciling response to this conflict is the only Christ-like response to this time in our history in the PC(USA). If we cannot heal this division, let us at least live through the conflict inflicting the least amount of damage possible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

How to Be Different in the Midst of the War

I am convinced that the personal and private instruction of Christ has impact on public ministry, not the other way around. We can't play by the Lord's rules in the closet of prayer, and go out and play by the world's rules and expect either individually or collectively to grow.
But playing by Christ's rules in the public sphere is not a recipe for respect or for success; to love one's enemies is considered treason. To turn the other cheek looks like playing the patsy. To hang from the cross and forgive your crucifiers is lunacy. But isn't each of these a commandment, in word and in deed, from Jesus?
I have sitting in front of me an invitation to sign my name to Harry Hassall's ad in the Presbyterian Outlook supporting the fidelity and chastity amendment (G-6:106b to those poised beside the Book of Order). Sign me up; it's in the mail, Harry.
And Tuesday, I'm meeting with the Presbytery Life Committee in Grace Presbytery (think meeting planners) to join a pastor from the more liberal side of things in suggesting that Grace simply take no action on the amendment 08B (if I have to explain this to you, it takes too long). A "no action" vote will still count as a "no," but it will possibly enable us to not spend a whole meeting throwing the same rocks at each other.
Some will say that these two positions are contradictory; but I would say that they are both faithful uses of the power of the office to which I am called. The first is declarative; it is important to publicly stand for Biblical truth. The second is ministerial; I am not here to help the PC(USA) destroy itself. I can stand for truth without having to hate or fear those who oppose that truth, and this presbytery must find a way to cohere at this point in its life. As a servant of the church, I need to be part of that glue. If anybody is reading, fire away.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Bless Your Name

Too often we think that praise comes from good feeling. Why is it that only the winning believers praise the Lord in sports? Why does God only get praise when something good happens?
The great secret of praise is learning to bless the Lord's name in the midst of suffering and loss. This is a difficult time of year for me, now that my family of origin has disintegrated. In many ways, when Christ came into my life He began the process of making me an orphan on this earth while all who were once part of my family circle still live. I have blessed His name with the deep grief from each broken relationship, even as I pray for reconciliation.
Our middle daughter's life has hung in the balance since she was 4 from a disease for which there is no cure this side of the cross. This Christmas, she will have a new form of neurosurgery. We will spend Christmas day at Children's Hospital in Dallas, and today what is looming in the windshield is finally shaking loose the tears for her suffering, the fears for what future years may bring... and I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth, even as the waves of grief drift over me.
Nothing will stop me from praising the Lord's name, as long as there is breath in my body. Praise is His strength in me, His hope for me, the shelter of wings that can hold me even if the worst comes. Being different is not a choice-- it is the only hope that stands when death shakes the foundations, and the mountains of one's own life fall into the sea.
Each time that I fall on my knees before the Lord, and find the comfort and strength that the Holy Spirit provides I am reminded of how many do not know Who I know, what I know. Each time a wave crests, I am reminded of the waves of pain that flowed from wrists and feet up the cross through the heart and mind of the One Who comforts me.
The work of ministry is not a recreational side light to "real life." This is real life. This is for all the marbles-- for life itself. How can we not share Who we know? How can our lips stay silent, waiting for rocks to claim the great joy--even through tears-- of lifting our voices in praise of the God Who made us, Who loved us enough to die for us, Who comforts and sustains us even through the valley of death?
Sing praises to the Lord this day-- no matter what this day brings to you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Being Different Part IV-- Hoarse Voice

There's an old joke: "what do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness and a Presbyterian? Someone who will knock on any door, but if it opens, has nothing to say." Or perhaps you've heard the famous line about Walter Mondale, who was said to have a peculiarly dull charisma that was a cross between a Presbyterian parson and a tree.
We don't speak the name of Jesus; it is tacky. Certainly, we do not speak and use "Jesus" and the second person familiar pronoun in public, even in prayer. That is beyond tacky; that is vulgar to Presbyterian ears. Vulgar after all means, "of the lower classes;" so many who now claim the name of Presbyterian have spent their lives running from or seeking to avoid such a dire fate as to be identified with the many.
Our hands are so clean because our mouths are so shut; we will not witness. But the passion that the living Christ instills in human hearts makes it impossible to be silent. The passion that Christ brings to life makes it impossible to live behind the barbed-wire fences of race, class, and lifestyle.
Who knows the hope that is within you? How many times have you had an opportunity to share that hope, and have decided that "it wouldn't be prudent"? How many people have you thought you were witnessing to when you said to them, "come to church with me"? The average person out in the world is no longer interested in crossing the threshold of a sanctuary; they want to know the Gospel from YOU. What do you believe? Who is Jesus? Why did He come? Why did He die? Where can I read about what you've told me?
There is a lot of explaining that needs to be done right now-- and you are the only person that your neighbor/coworker/friend is talking to. We need to be able to meet that need-- and no number of anonymous good deeds can take the place of those spoken words. Witnessing is not an optional practice that is too "vulgar" or "tacky" for us to do. It is the baseline expectation of every believer, and if we do not wish to stand speechless before a world that has tired of our dull charisma, we have to learn to talk about Jesus till our voices grow hoarse from declaring His praises, and sharing His love.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Being Different Part III-- Calloused Hands

When I served a small congregation in Western New York's grape farming country, my hands were always the giveaway to the fact that I "wasn't from around here." They were too soft, too clean; they hadn't seen years of work or any great amount of use.
Calloused hands are the sign of hard labor over long periods of time. And the PC(USA) has hands that are too soft, and too clean. We have revelled in the pride of place and position, looking to money to do our work for us-- but the work of making disciples cannot be outsourced, no matter how much money one has.
Disciples are made by example; the Word is preached by the life that stands behind the words of the preacher. Love is hard work, and Christ teaches us that hard work is good.
Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3 states a simple fact of life: those who will not work will not eat. Without the hard work of making disciples, the Church simply starves to death. But do the hard work, and the God who fed the Israelites for 40 years across the wilderness with bread from heaven will feed us with Bread of life that we may feed on here and now, and live forever.
It is only when each of us does the work to which Christ calls us that we are individually and collectively fed. The manicured hands of a priviledged denomination are no longer something to be admired. On the mission field, clean hands are the sign of idleness. It's time to get out into our neighborhoods and communities and get our hands dirty doing the Lord's work. No matter how hard it is, the Lord's work is always good.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Being Different, Part II-- On our Knees

If there is one way to tell how sick the PC(USA) is, look at the exercise of the discipline of prayer. We pray because someone is going to check the minutes of the meeting much more often than we pray because we are moved to come together before Christ.
Prayer has always been foolishness to the world; it is doing nothing when one could be doing something. The fact that we whom Christ has called often view prayer similarly tells us just how close Cindy Rigby's description of the PC(USA) as "of the world, but not in it" truly is.
So let's get down to the nitty-gritty: what does it mean to be the change we seek? It means to truly become a people of prayer. Not five minutes before you get in bed prayer, or nodding to heaven while we read a list prayer, or the pretentious and affected prayers that pass for liturgy too often in the one hour a week we do what we are supposed to do our whole life long.
Prayer is a constant conversation with God; it is checking with God even the smallest details of our day. Prayer for the people of God is taking seriously the power of intercessory prayer, and becoming intercessors for the sick and those in need.
How many people in your congregation pray like that? How many have you taught to pray like that? How much of a model are you? Does your congregation have an active intercessory prayer list? If not, start one. Invite people into the ministry of prayer-- especially those who physically cannot give to Christ what they once had to give. Our best intercessor hasn't stood on her feet or spent much time out of the bed she lies in for 5 years. But she prays without ceasing. Prayer ministry can be taught in the home, through a family prayer circle every night. E-mail and the internet make prayer requests more reliably transmittable and accessible.
What is the first thing to do when confronting a problem? Form a committee? Organize our support/opposition? Where is that in the New Testament? First and last, it is always God. First and last, it is always Christ. First and last, it is always the Holy Spirit that will guide. Pastors who do not know the tears and sighs too deep for words in the private closet of prayer cannot lead because they cannot accurately follow Jesus Christ; where you are privately in your closet with Christ is where you will be publicly.
What would a praying congregation look like? I have a good view of one at OCPC. But what would a praying presbytery look like? I long for the day when we in the pastor's union in the PC(USA) really pray for one another. Both of you who follow this blog, I hope you know that I am always praying for you. I need your prayers, too.
Start being different-- learn to pray without ceasing.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Being Different in the PC(USA)

As a Confessing Church pastor (for those who don't know PCUSA politics, that's code for "evangelical"), I have watched and participated in the debates through the last 20 years that will determine the shape of the part of the Body of Christ that I was born into when Christ came into my life as a 14-year-old in Washington, D.C.

I am watching and listening now as the next installment of this crusade plays across the presbyteries, and I have come to a conclusion. Not only is this no way to be the Church, this is no way to stand for Christ against those who no longer seem (to me) to be brothers and sisters in the same family.

The coldness of progressive "Christianity" has always been a problem for me. All head, little heart, lots of pride masked by good deeds and good intentions. It would all be hard to take, if the same could not be said for the conservative "Christianity" that takes the opposing viewpoints and plays by the same rules.

It seems to me that both are trying to find some way back-- back to the time when the Mainline was the mainline and not a silly sideline in this culture. Progressives believe that if they just leap ahead of the culture, they will be seen as its leaders again. Conservatives believe that if they just hold on rigidly to what was handed on to them, that "being right" will translate into cultural leadership when everyone comes to their senses.

Both are wrong. There is no way back to that time-- thank God. The Church was captive in a culture that bowed to the cross, but did not follow Jesus, even if everyone was in their places with bright shining faces.

A new Church will arise out of the ashes of Christendom-- and it won't be the nightmarish vision of either of the camps that is fighting over Christendom's rotting corpse. The new Church already hears Christ's call to let the dead bury their own dead, as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:60).

The Church's addiction to power must now be broken, because power is out of the Church's reach. We are going through delirium tremens Left and Right these days-- but when the Church finally sobers up, puts away numbers and the luxuries they generate, and gets back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a new Church will arise.
The call now is to be the change we seek to see-- to become a pilgrim Church whose knees are worn by falling on them in prayer and worship, whose hands are calloused by Christ's using them to do His work in the world, whose voice is hoarse from shouting into the din of this culture real Good News.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Mission Statement

You go to pastors, and hear them talk about all the programs and all the numbers
and the money and all the buildings. But you almost never hear them talk
about how the lives of their people were so demonstrably different that people
had to pay attention to the cause of Christ and take it seriously.
George Barna

Until the day I die, my purpose is to be so demonstrably different that people pay attention to the cause of Christ and take Him seriously.
That means:
1. My prayer life must be always first—I must seek out Jesus in my life, my relationships, and my work. Seek FIRST the Kingdom.
2. My submission and obedience to the Lord must grow—I must trust the Word and the Holy Spirit more deeply each day so that I decrease, and He increases in me.
3. I must accept suffering, loss, humiliation as the simple cost of taking the journey. There is no resurrection without crucifixion—there is no crucifixion without pain.
4. I must fight with endurance against all the forces within me, within my culture, from my past that would pull me away from my call—I must put the world behind me if I am to keep the cross before me.
5. I must engage the world and the worldly as Jesus did—in simple authentic truth. I must accept their rejection or acceptance with my eyes firmly on Jesus, never on me.
6. I must lead others to pursue this same course with passionate conviction, so that the presence of Jesus Christ can once again be felt within this culture.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Confession is Action

When I was young and new at ministry, I thought that faithful service to Jesus Christ began with building complex institutions, proposing overtures, moving congregations between presbyteries, making well-greased machinery run flawlessly, and culminated in preaching to thousands with a television "ministry" and a couple of honorary doctorates on the wall. That would mean my life had made a difference.
What is success in ministry? The longer I live, the less sure I am that anything listed in the paragraph above causes the heart of Christ to leap for joy. All those wonderful things offer comfort to me by banishing my fears of my own insignificance and unworthiness. But the world is filled with such preachers and teachers-- Dallas is practically drowning in them. Has it changed Dallas appreciably? I would be hard-pressed to be able to say how it has, other than the fact that everybody knows those preachers' names and faces.
I find it fascinating that we don't know what Jesus actually looked like. No one ever thought of getting him to sit down, like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln did, and having a life-cast bust made, or finding a great painter to paint his picture. Surely the disciples could have found the money to pay for that. We know Caesar; we know Constantine.
But Jesus could walk up to me today, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't know it was him. He left no army, no great crowd of disciples. The crowds were a flash in the pan-- the only people he left behind were the 12, and one of them betrayed him while the rest forsook him and fled. So why was Jesus's ministry successful in God's eyes? I'm drawn to the simple definition of work that Jesus gives in John:
Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." John 6:28-29
Confession is my primary action. I am called to believe-- which means to obey down to the last detail of my own life what the Lord tells me through the Word. That call to obedience constantly humiliates me with the reality that I cannot do even that one task, and constantly calls me to confess my need for forgiveness and mercy.
My life is lived in continuous prayer, continuous need, continuous communion. Whatever flows out of that life-giving relationship is what gives God joy.
I probably will never be a doctor of anything. I won't be on TV (I really hate the lights anyway). OCPC will probably never be a megachurch (can't tell God what to do, but with my worldly eyes, I think I'm probably right). No one on earth may have any idea who I am (but I guess I have enough vanity to be writing this-- there is work yet to be done). But my life will make the difference that Christ wants it to make if I place my life in his hands. If I can come to the end of this day and say, "Lord, whatever this day was, I lived it believing in you with all my heart, mind, and strength," that is success. That life, lived that way day by day, makes a difference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

One Jesus

The beginning of the disintegration process in progressive theology can be traced to one key assumption: that there is a difference between “the historical Jesus” and “the Jesus of faith” presented in the New Testament. Once Jesus has been dis-integrated, torn from our understanding of the Scriptures which cannot be trusted to show us who Jesus is, then Jesus becomes very quickly, “my Jesus.”
The troubling events of the General Assembly this year rely in no small measure on this disintegrated understanding. When anyone would bring up the Scriptural support that flew in the face of cultural imperatives, they would be told that “my Jesus would never say/do such a thing,” even if the Scriptures say He did. The real Jesus is the Jesus of my experience—in essence, a figure of my imagination: my Jesus.
The Church, too, has been part of this disintegrating impulse. As soon as the Word was made flesh, controversies innumerable sprang up. Theologians came to call this series of problems the scandal of particularity: to become human, Christ had to enter a specific culture as a specific person. He was a Jew, not a Gentile; he was a man, not a woman. And each particular part of humanity, divided from the others, wishes to claim Jesus Christ as its own: our Jesus.
But there is just one Jesus Christ. We believe that the Scriptures testify to who He is from beginning to end, and that that testimony can be trusted. No culture can contain Him, even though He lived on this earth as a Jewish man. Jesus Christ IS risen—that means He lives. And He lives for one purpose, best put in his prayer in John 17:11—“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
There is no chauvinist Jesus, no feminist Jesus, no black Jesus, no white Jesus, no “my Jesus.” There is only the Lord and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, to Whom the Scriptures testify. Born into one culture, His command transcends all cultures; for He came to earth to reunite and revivify what was divided and dead from our fall into sin. There is only one Jesus Christ known in one Book, testified to by many witnesses. Thanks be to God that He claims us.

The Reality of Redemption

No one who believes in the innate goodness of people lasts very long in ministry. The reason for this is not that ministry is hard (even though it is). No one can be at the work of redemption long who does not come face to face with the reality that for human beings it is impossible.
I have been working for almost six years now trying to cross boundaries amongst those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord, who say we worship the same Savior, yet have different colors of skin and different cultures. If I was doing this because I thought it was a good idea, I would have quit a long time ago.
Doors slam more than they open; time is wasted on dead ends and frustrated hopes. But every now and then, a door opens and small expenditures of time and love and energy come back 30 fold, 60-fold, 100-fold. Every time I come to the end of my rope, I find Jesus Christ there waiting for me.
My mentor and teacher Oswald Chambers spent a great deal of time teaching on this one central truth-- the reality of Christ's redemption, the reality of our redemption, the reality of this world's redemption. To trust in one is to trust in the others; to trust in one, our living must prove that we know that all three redemptions have already been accomplished.
I do not know whether I will ever see the congregations of Oak Cliff come together in witness and ministry. I don't know whether I will ever see the blood of Christ cleanse Dallas and this nation from its original sin of slavery. That is not what is asked of me.
"I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Current State of the PC(USA)

A tree stands by the strength of its core; trees can be alive, full of leaves and seemingly healthy when in fact they are structurally fragile and prone to collapse. The tree's core is its heartwood-- the hardest structure of the wood within it. Its growth is in the sapwood underneath the bark, but a growing tree that cannot support its weight or stand against the winds that blow around it will not be tall for long.
The PC(USA) is growing, on the fringes, but is there enough heartwood left so that it will continue to stand as it has for 200 years? I think we have all heard the loud cracks this year as the winds of this culture continue to batter us. The tree is falling because its heartwood is gone. But that does not mean it is dead, or that all who are part of its growing edge are lost.
I am not a Panglossian optimist. I see different congregations growing, but I also know that this tree is going to fall. Too many of my evangelical brothers and sisters insist that that means that all is lost-- it is not. As Isaiah sees (Isaiah 10:33-35)
This very day he will halt at Nob, he will shake his fist at the mount of daughter Zion, the hill of Jerusalem. Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.
But that same God has a purpose in His destruction, for in the next breath Isaiah says that
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
The tree may fall, but the shoot will live. God is not done with us yet.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bottom Up, Inside Out

How does the PC(USA) reform itself? How will it be reborn? I have friends I talk to and facebook groups I participate in who believe that the way to reform and rebirth this denomination is to rewrite the Book of Order, to create better advertizing, to restructure the bureaucracy. I know pastors who move from theological fad to theological fad looking for the silver bullet that will bring back 1950, when everybody streamed into congregations and the company of pastors was a respected calling by everyone in this society.
That day is gone, and it's not coming back.
I think that the PC(USA) will be reformed and reborn the same way we individually are; we are changed from the inside out. Church growth folks talk about people acting their way into believing, but the New Testament demonstrates that Christ changes individuals, who then begin to act differently in the world. Jesus Christ alone changes hearts and lives; that change then is worked out into the life we live in the world.
If you want to see signs of what Jesus Christ is up to in the PC(USA), don't look to Louisville, or the NFOG task group, or any of the alphabet soup of groups that each presbytery churns out of its committees. Jesus Christ is changing the Church from the bottom up, from the inside out.
Here's the change I see from my place on the fringes: I see a congregation that was afraid of its neighborhood, afraid to pray out loud, afraid of speaking the words "Jesus Christ" in a normal conversation now going door-to-door in that same neighborhood asking neighbors "what can we pray for you?" and when they receive an answer, praying with them. I see old and young, new members and longtime members praying with the kids who now come in from around the neighborhood on Wednesdays, and sharing their faith in Jesus Christ. I see hopeless addicts who now stand with Christ, pray and study the Scriptures, who are leading others in that same hopelessness to the Source of all hope. I see a congregation in Oak Cliff that knows exactly what to do when someone comes up and says, "sir, we would see Jesus."
Race doesn't matter. Origin doesn't matter. Generation doesn't matter. Even congregation doesn't matter, as the Great Banquet Ministry becomes a bottom-up and inside-out model for ecumenical Christian witness and action.
We're not unique; we're just not in the limelight. We are speaking; we just don't have control of the microphone. Jesus Christ is reforming and rebirthing the PC(USA) from the bottom up, from the fringes in, from the inside out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beyond Identity

It seems that one of the most human of activities is dividing up into discrete groups. We do this on the playground, in the classroom, in neighborhoods. Oak Cliff and other "red-lined" areas of America's cities are the evidence of how profound this practice is. Whole generations are blighted by the separation that the baby boom generation has moved from just being about race and class to now include "lifestyle" segregation.
We justify this by celebrating our identities, celebrating our music, our culture, our behaviors and daring anybody to say anything against our demonstrations. And when they do, we cry out that we are being attacked, thus stimulating more fear on the part of those who understand us, and thus a blinder loyalty to the tribe. Fear rules us, no matter which side of which battle we fight on.
This cycle is not new to the post-Christendom world; it is not unique to the West. This is the same world that Christ entered-- only Christ tranformed it by his death and resurrection. Where is the Church-- not congregations, but the Church-- in a world so polarized by those who derive joy and purpose from the crusade?
Is not serving Jesus Christ losing one identity, and being born into another that is greater than race, greater than class, greater than sexual identity? "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" 2 Corinthians 5:17-18
One of the reasons the Church of Jesus Christ grew in its first centuries was because it was known as "the third race," not Jew, not Gentile, but each and every race who no longer prided themselves on their separateness, because they were all in Christ.
Where is that Church today? Why can't we be that Church?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hope Within Us

As Toby Brown hangs up his blogging suit, I guess it's time to try one on for size. There is too much hot air out there right now in the PC(USA), and not enough light. I hope that this blog will be salt and light to all who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who seek to serve Him in Dallas and beyond.
The Trinity River is the "great divide" in Dallas between rich and poor, brown skin and white skin, the comfortable past of a homogenous culture, and the thrilling adventure of the hodgepodge of cultures which is (and will soon be in all of this country) our current context. South of the Trinity is seen as a dangerous place by those who live north of it. For those of us who love the adventure that living here brings, we offer no apologies.
We are the future of America-- where there is no cultural majority, where we must learn to love one another or we will die, where the politics of division is a poison to be counteracted rather than a means to a chosen end.
We at OCPC are also a minority; we are a growing congregation inside the PC(USA). Christ is on the move here, and we will not apologize for what He is doing. As a congregation that has been desegregated (50% Anglo, 50% African-American) for 30 years, we are becoming a congregation integrated in Christ as brothers and sisters, reaching out to our Hispanic new neighbors, and watching the Lord provide the growth.
Welcome to the right side of the Trinity. God is not done with Oak Cliff, or the PC(USA) yet. Let's see where the Lord of the Church and His sword, the Word of God, shall point and lead.

One Gospel

After 9-10 centuries of making the Christian faith complex, intellectually arrogant, and difficult to understand, God seems to be simplifying things once again. Just like the simplification going on in the business world right now, God’s simplification procedure is neither fun nor bloodless; there is a high cost to it. But God’s purposes accomplished by these harrowing crises are the hope of the world.
So what is God up to right now? I wish I knew. But I can see small glimpses of something new being born; through the rest of the year, I will take this space to share what little I can see.
The first thing I see is that the Lord is pushing us to see the Gospel, not our gospel. In Christendom, the Church sold its soul to become a cultural mascot of the various tribes who were willing to force on all their members a superficial obedience to the Lord’s commandments. The Church became “branded” by tribe, by theological nuance, and then within the competitive environment of American capitalism, became branded by race, class, socio-economic level. All these divisions brought arguments and persecutions based around the false premise that our version was “the real Gospel,” while theirs was a “false Gospel.”
As Paul tried to make clear to the Galations, this thinking is false and destructive. There is only one Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ—and everybody has gotten it a little bit wrong. The one Gospel is a radical, unfair and incomprehensible forgiveness on God’s part of anyone who will accept it. This forgiveness is not cheap; it is bought by God with the blood of His only son. There are no preconditions to accepting this forgiveness, this new life—but the transaction is as radical as the gift itself: life for a life. To accept the gift, I must surrender the one thing I truly possess (for a while): my life.
There is no Black Gospel; there is no White Gospel; there is no Presbyterian Gospel, Baptist Gospel, or Methodist Gospel. There is one Message, shared and seen from different angles by different people. But if the Church is to emerge with its Spirit-led missionary voice in this culture, we must all come to see we preach one Gospel.