Friday, January 30, 2009

The Real Challenge

Session was meeting; we were one hour into our time, greasing the machinery of the church. At the door-- visible because the Session room is glass-walled, as is the South entrance-- stood two young black men, not exactly dressed for church.
Because we had had a big shindig that day, the door was unlocked and many people were coming and going. One of them came to the door, and let the two young men in. Watching this unfold behind the elders' backs, I looked at the circle of elders, and I said to them, "someone needs...." Before I could get the call to serve out of my mouth, one elder was at the door, going to them. She began to talk to them, and one of the young men began to cry. She took them to the library; we could hear her telling them, "we need to pray for you." I said, "Jesus sent us out two by two..." and another elder jumped up and followed her to the library. Our parish associate went with him.
Our meeting continued, wheels were greased; but I was watching as person after person went by loading their cars, hearing the cries, dropping everything, and heading to the library. Within a few minutes, piles of bags had stacked up at the entrance door, and I could just see through the cracked open door of the library young and old, new and veteran Christians, black and white, on their knees with their hands on the backs of the two young black men.
At the end of the meeting, an hour later, they were still there; I went in and prayed with them, and heard their story. Abandoned by their parents, raised by grandparents who had recently died, fathers of children they did not really know and could not really help to raise-- they were little boys in men's costumes, trying to act like they knew what they were doing, when they were totally lost.
It had finally gotten bad enough that they simply started walking, looking for the doors of a church that would be open at 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon. Our building is on a street of churches, but we are a ways north of most of them. They had started at the southern end of the street-- we were the only door that was open.
This is a parable for our time: I have never felt more joy as a pastor than I felt that day, watching Jesus Christ use this community to hold on to those two young men, and help them to get their bearings in a world that did not seem to care if they failed or succeeded.
While we are inside arguing, a generation of young men is dying all around us. While we play at spiritual things, a generation is growing up ignorant of them. This is the real challenge of this time. It is time to as they say, "man up:"
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Romans 1:16

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Shedding Dead Ideas

Dust is amazing stuff. Look at your computer keyboard, or the top of the monitor-- it piles up fast not because we're slovenly, but because we are alive. Dust is mostly made up of our discarded skin cells. We shed our skin just like snakes do; we just don't shed it all at the same time. We shed a little each day, imperceptably replacing our outer shell until we notice that gray detritus around where we live and work.
Wouldn't it be nice if change in the Church of Jesus Christ could work the same way? I know of a man who wanted his congregation to have a unified pulpit in the center of the chancel; his way of making this change happen was to drag the pulpit to the center, one inch per week. That'll fool'em, won't it?
But eventually, someone is going to ask, "why is the pulpit in the middle of the chancel?" And when they do, the whole subterfuge explodes in the face of the leader who spent so much time and energy inching the piece of furniture across the floor.
History has turned the lights on mid-move on the Church in western culture. We have been exposed for what we are and what we have been: a people more interested in comfort than the call of Christ to self-sacrificial love, more concerned with being a target for the bullies of culture than with becoming the demonstrably different witness to Christ who transforms culture, and the world.
We face an increasingly stark choice that many of us by training and experience are totally unprepared to make: do we blend in, or do we stand out? We cannot choose by simply finding a safe place to live, or a job to hold: everything (and now, in this economic climate it is literally everything) is in flux. There is no solid ground to sit down on and not move.
So, how do we move forward?
FIX YOUR EYES ON JESUS. Worship and prayer are the oxygen of the Christian life-- they are the vehicle for communication, without which no relationship can exist.
ABSOLUTELY TRUST THE BIBLE. This may not get you applause from the PhD's, and it will elicit more than one eye-rolling sigh from those who consider themselves the arbiters of intelligence, but the Scriptures are the one compass that will never lead you astray. Listen to what God tells you in His word, and do it.
LET ALL THINGS BE DONE IN LOVE. If you ever find yourself with hammer and nails in your hand and a wrist in front of you, you are in the wrong place. If there is pain to be borne, be the first to bear it rather than the one to inflict it. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all Romans 12:18.
If we can learn to do just this, we can find our way through this shattering time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How Do We Go Forward?

After reading this post from Viola Larson, and an interesting conversation at lunch with my evangelical brothers in the PC(USA), I am left with the same question I've been asking for almost 4 years now. How do we (pastors in the denomination) go forward?
I have stuck my neck out, and tried to reach across the aisle to promote a "no action" vote on 08-B, which my evangelical brothers have graciously received by handing me my head. It seems that reaching across the aisle propels one out of one's seat on this side. I asked them the same question, and I got back a variant of this Long Island pastor's answer: "...Personally, I will stay in the PCUSA and pastor my flock as I fulfill my call - not to be faithful but because I have not found a way out yet. But should God ever open the door to a call away from the PCUSA, I will be gone in a heartbeat; shaking the dust from my shoes as a testimony...even if I have to wait until honorable retirement to do so..."
Being a minority is hard on the soul. I see it all around me in the community I live in, one of the few places in the USA where African-Americans have majority status. The privations of the southern part of Dallas are perceived to be entirely the work of "them," the rich white majority north of the Trinity; but the desire to separate is on both sides of the river. Separation is the last defense of any minority; it is a way to survive the crushing forces of conformity to the majority. Minority cultures can survive no other way.
This is why OCPC is such a strange and wonderful community. We are all refugees from our cultures of origin: to come here and be part of this family, everyone has to leave home. And yet, the relationships that bind us, first to Christ and then to one another, make this place in no man's land home, too. It was home when white flight emptied the neighborhood of good "Presbyterian" families; it was home when busing scarred the lives of young people who went to school knowing that they were not wanted. It was home as it changed from an Anglo congregation where African-Americans were welcome to a more integrated congregation with a lot of people for whom the word "church" did not engender warm memories of being welcome.
I live as a minority now; our family is one of 3 Anglo families in our neighborhood. So how do we live as a minority, my evangelical brothers and sisters who are reading this? I made a suggestion of what to do with 08-B that might open some lines of communication. You didn't like it. What's your idea?
We cannot stay and leave at the same time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dead Idea #5-- Power is Better than Love

Power does not demand love. Power demands submission and respect. An underlying current of the poisonous river that has worn away the inner strength of the Church of Jesus Christ is the exchange of love-- absolute and total trust, self-giving, self-sacrificing-- for power.
The world and its cultures know only power; the ability to coerce or persuade is the only power that there is. A worldly Church, a Church that is culturally captive, comes to believe the same thing.
From the top, the organization of the church becomes defensive (hang on to what you have), rather than expansive. Leaders of this church demand to be respected and spend their lives acquiring and defending their respectability. Power expresses itself differently at the grassroots level of the church, but no less poisonously. The average pewsitter demands to be seen as good, and spend their lives acquiring and defending their goodness.
This church will argue to the death over doctrine; it will excoriate the surrounding culture for its bad acts, and evil proclivities. But it will not engage the sinner-- it will spend money, but no blood to save the lost. James says that faith without deeds is dead; this church is dead, even when it is filled to the brimming with treasure and talent.
Love does not coerce, Love invites. Love is easily mocked, easily ignored, easily rejected. Love suffers rather than inflicting suffering; Love embraces rejection, rather than rejecting. Love is present not when everyone says it is, but when everyone LOVES. Love is messy and chaotic, and costly. Love serves. The pastor who serves in love is easy to hurt, mock, and demean. The people who serve in love are easy to question about their motives, and easy to dismiss for their "ignorance" and weakness.
But the Love of Jesus Christ that compels the believer transforms the blood and toil of their self-emptying sacrifice into Christ's own blood, which washes away the sins of the whole world. I have watched Christ's love wash away a lifetime of disrespect and prejudice, of death-dealing self-hatred and bitterness. When I get up in the pulpit of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church, I look out on young and old, black, white, hispanic, rich, poor, sober and recently sober-- all who are seeking to love Jesus Christ with all their heart, soul, and mind, and to love their neighbor as themselves. That may not be enough power for a journalist to believe that love can change the world-- but it was enough to change us. Who truly knows how far that Love can go in changing the world until we, the Church, take all our worldly power and possessions, and try?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

About Nell

Sorry that I haven't updated Nell's status on the blog, but that's because things have been astonishingly normal. The next MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)/MRA (magnetic resonance angiography) is in 6 months, so life goes on, and we wait.
Life is good, and we are adjusting to the newly discovered realities of this time. I live each day quietly watching to see if anything happens, and asking questions if something does happen. It is hard to live inside that vigilance, and hopefully time will erode it. But it is a new twist of this 13-year journey that takes some time to adjust to. We appreciate your prayers, and know that God's purposes are being worked out, even if we do not know what they are. God is good.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dead Idea #4-- Permanence is more Important than Performance

Every established religion-- that is, every religion given privilege and power by the culture that surrounds it-- becomes enamored with bricks and mortar. Establishment gives a faith worldly resources that are most easily used for worldly ends, so faith is literally set into stone.
From every European city's cathedral to the square windowless mall-like warehouses of Dallas, the power and prestige of Christian faith is proclaimed by buildings no one lives in, built with great sacrifice by the common people, so that the culture at large cannot look across the skyline without having to encounter a cross on a spire.
But faith cannot be set into stone. The story can be told, yes-- but faith is written on human hearts. How many of those stone cathedrals now are warehouses for chairs in Europe? How many of the great stone piles put up in the flush times of the last century with names like Presbyterian or Episcopal on their signs sit empty across America?
Established faiths play on the impermanence of human achievement to garner riches to build these piles. Give your money to the church, and a stained glass window with your name, your beloved's name, will stand in the sanctuary, and people will remember you, and them. Buildings testify to us.
But Jesus says that we are to be witnesses to HIM! Obedience matters more than memory-- performance of Christ's commands matters more than the permanence of one's achievements. We have much to learn from our older siblings, especially the Jews of Europe. No great cathedral is necessary for the performance of our obedient love for Christ; all that is needed is a room, and the Book, and faithful people gathered in His name.
The true Church, the great congregations of this and every age, are not those that leave behind the largest sarcophagus in which their faith is buried. The true Church, the great congregations are those that so live out their faith and pour out their lives that the law of Christ is written anew on hearts young and old, of every race, station, and circumstance. The true Church does not leave anything behind it-- the true Church through obedience plants that which will succeed it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dead Idea #3: Respectability=Piety

For the denominations given pride of place in Christendom, this dead idea is at the core of their decline. As Christianity ceased to be a faith to be embraced and became a mark of belonging in the larger culture of which it was claimed to be a part, faith practices atrophied, and cultural markers replaced them as evidence of Christian faith.
For many centuries, faith practices and cultural markers remained joined at the hip, reaching their apogee in the Victorian era. Be a good citizen, grow wealthy, be good to your spouse and children lived happily side-by-side with prayer, Bible Study, and doing what Christ directs you to do. But as doubts were raised about the Christian part of Western culture, the markers began to diverge from faith practices.
The final rupture between respectability and Christian piety began in the 1920's, as did so many of the cultural trends that continue today. Living in cities divorced from generational family ties, younger generations developed new ways of being "respectable," with the Christian faith practices more and more as a model for the way NOT to be respectable.
Christian faith became an object of dirision, as Clarence Darrow sought to humiliate William Jennings Bryan on the stand during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Faith practices were "backward" in a time confident that human scientific knowledge would lead to a better world. Those who practiced their faith in ways recognizable by the generations of faithful before them retreated from the culture at large into a dark corner, while those who had followed the path of respectability came to fear and despise those faith practices as the ways of the poor and the ignorant.
Respectability as a faith practice, though, has one major drawback-- it is not transformational. Respectability is the mark of the majority, the mark of belonging, and as such is always a moving target. To chase respectability, one must look like everybody else. It is dangerous to stick out in a respectable crowd. If respectability is one's aim, then one must always be a follower, wherever respectability leads.
So, now that respectability decrees that sexual practice is a matter of indifference, and that, if one is not indifferent to practices that the Scriptures call sin, then one cannot be respectable, those who have no Scriptural knowledge to fall back on, who know nothing of the real practice of the faith they profess, simply follow the rules of their culture. Their children abandon the "faith" they were raised in, and their denominations die.
Practicing the historic Christian faith now in the upper reaches of this culture is embracing downward mobility; it is a great way to lose the respect of respectable people.
But praying to Christ Jesus will change your life. Reading the Bible, believing God's promises, heeding the Spirit's call will save your life. Worshipping Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in daily life will open your eyes to your life's calling. Jesus Christ transforms every life He touches-- and no life, however rich in respect and the things of this world can compare with knowing Jesus.
Let goods and kindred go, Martin Luther wrote so long ago; this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God's truth abideth still-- His Kingdom is forever.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dead Idea #2: God is an Intellectual Concept

There were many consequences to the Constantinian Compromise, which made Christianity the mascot of Western Culture, but the atrophy of the most basic functions of faith is the most dangerous.
Cultures of all sorts fall victim to Dellacroix's dictum, "effort and pretension are everywhere." And when following Jesus Christ as Lord became fashionable, the fashions of the world slowly overgrew their foundations, encrusting faith with a mantle of intellectual sophistication that, by the middle of the 20th century had become the challenge of making theology inaccessible to the average person. Perhaps the apogee of this form of "study" is Karl Barth, whose sentences can run for pages without a period.
Theology in this Babylonian Captivity to Western culture became the study of concepts and systems, until God Himself became just another idea. The entire "God is Dead" movement of the 60's and 70's was simply the popular expression of this: if God is just an idea, then ideas have a shelf life. Perhaps God was an idea whose time had passed.
John Shelby Spong and his disciples embraced this "idea" and promoted it. In my theology class at Princeton Seminary, I was publicly rebuked for thinking of God as a person, not a concept. It has now become "tacky" to speak of God as person-- it is the intellectual equivalent of being bare-foot and pregnant.
This is why, dear brothers and sisters, Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire says that Rick Warren prays "to a god I do not know." Christians are now using the same words, but meaning very different things. One group talks about God, and means to have an intellectual discussion of ideas, while the other group talks about God, and means to share experience and understanding (however limited) of the One who was, Who is, and Who is to come.
The first group will continue to dwindle because its task is simply an interesting hobby; the second group will continue to grow, because each one who is touched by the reality of God knows that life and death are at stake in the sharing. The idea group at best sees Christianity as a lifestyle; the revelation group at its best knows Christianity to be the Way, the Truth, the Life.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Challenge of Disenthralling Ourselves

In her review of Matt Miller's book, Kathleen Parker in today's Washington Post is bringing forth the great challenge for us in this time: we must disenthrall ourselves, as Abraham Lincoln put it in 1861. What is killing us right now is not the death of precious ideas-- it is our unwillingness to think anew, and act anew. We will not let go of what is gone, so we cannot grasp hold of what is coming.
What is going is traumatically so drastic that to let go of it, we must let go of some essential pieces of what it has meant to be an American in the last half-century. Miller lists six such dead ideas, but the PC(USA) has others to contribute to the list. What I intend to do for a while is to list and describe these dead ideas.
Dead Idea #1: the Church must follow wherever the Culture that gives it status leads.
This idea is the most deadly holdover from the Christendom era. When the Church and its surrounding society cooperated in perpetuating the lie that the entire culture was Christian, the Church received power and status in return for tacit obedience to this central idea. Hence, at the beginning of World War I, every army was blessed by its pastors, priests, and bishops to go out and kill the other armies. Christians were blessed by the Church to go out and kill other Christians, because the cultures were at war.
The PC(USA) has been done in by this same phenomenon from the 1960's, when the culture that gave the PC(USA) status declared war on the rising youth culture of the time; we are now almost 50 years into that war, and it still hasn't ended.
So much of what is happening inside the Church is still being driven by this principle. In an argument over whether the Church should bless gay marriage, the winning trump in my brother's hand was this: "don't you realize that in 20 years, every state in the union will recognize gay marriage?"
My response: "So what?"
All I received was a dumbfounded look.
The Church is not bound to follow this culture-- it is bound to follow the Lord, led by the Word. When the Church follows the Lord, preaches the Word, and obeys, it will lead Culture, not follow it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Deckchair or Lifeboat?

Now that I am down to about 5 kleenexes/hour, and the coughing only lasts the first 2 hours of the day, I am trying to get back in the swing of things. Nell has been at school for the first two full days, but I'm afraid she's caught this bug now, so she's taking it easy (which is hard for her). Ruth heads back to college on Monday, and everything goes to full speed next week at Church (we're at about 1/2 speed this week).
As I've been reading the blogs, I've been thinking about Bruce Reyes-Chow's challenge to define a center that can hold inside the PC(USA), about Beau Weston's assertions that the tall-steeple pastors should re-form their "establishment" to form that center.
The image may be brutal, but I think it is apt. It doesn't matter whether you are partial to the port side, starboard side, bow, midships, or stern of the Titanic. There is no sense in arguing where is the best place to gather together. All parts of the ship are headed in the same direction. The ship turns out to not be "unsinkable" after all. If this last six months should have taught us arrogant Westerners anything, it should be that no human creation is unsinkable, or too big to fail.
All of the foundational institutions of "the American Century"-- corporations, unions, health insurance, pensions-- are coming apart. The question is not how to save them, but how to create what comes next. In that context, the question of a "center" makes sense.
This is the great enterprise of this time-- and it will not be engaged in by those who are on the deck, with their shoulders to the wheels of the old system as it grinds its way into oblivion. The grand enterprise will start as a collection of lifeboats, not some sheared-off portion of the old ship. This is why I believe that Dr. Weston is mistaken. The real creative energy of a new center is not going to be found in the first class saloon of the old; it will be found in those striking out in new directions around the periphery. If there is a hope for something new to salvage the precious treasure bound up in the old, it is in the lifeboats.
Let those who want to yell about whether the iceberg was on the left or the right of the ship, whether if we had turned to port or starboard things might have been different-- let them argue on. There are new horizons to be explored with those ready to get in a smaller craft. I see no reason why Bruce and I cannot explore that new horizon with our two boats together. In fact, sticking together makes MORE sense in a lifeboat than it does in a deckchair. The era of the modern American Titanic is over, for good or for ill. Let's save what we can of her, and see what the Lord will lead us to build to replace her.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


My eager desire and hope being that
I may never feel ashamed.
But that now, as ever, I may do honour to Christ
In my own person with fearless courage. Philippians 1:20 (Moffat)

As I am trying to feel my way through the fog of this time, I picked up Oswald Chambers and began another year of My Utmost for His Highest. The Scripture above is the first Word from the book. I think I understand more now what it means.
This process is an education in the nature of the world. It is breathtaking in its cold, cruel and senseless beauty. All the picket fences and locks, security systems and 401(k)'s and health insurance cannot protect us from its dead, remorseless progress. It has no care for negotiation, no rules it must follow. Being good is no protection. All the routines of our lives do not send it scurrying away.
It is this essential senselessness of the world that I think Heath Ledger captured in "The Dark Knight," which we watched on Sunday (thank you, David and Michael). He and Two-Face are the two faces of our natural reaction to it: a selfish delight in joining in the destruction, or a rage-filled demand for fairness, for some sort of sense. Both reactions simply fuel the cruelty.
There is another reaction that is possible. It is to stand and fight-- not to win, but simply to fight-- to fight the cruelty, the coldness, the senselessness with the one abiding power that has no human explanation, and is just as visceral as the hate, fear and rage: love. But that now, as ever, I may do honour to Christ In my own person with fearless courage.
Courage to stand with Nell, and not lie, but speak the truth that Love will not lose-- it WILL be ok, even if it seems that all is lost. Courage to pick up a light instead of cursing the darkness. Courage to love in the face of the hatred and cruelty of those who know the world, and in resignation or selfishness feed its powers, indifferent to the suffering around them. Courage to live in a world terrified of dying.
If we walk down the path and Nell's eloquence is swallowed in silence too early, or the work we do in Oak Cliff bears little fruit, or all that I cherish is taken from me-- I still choose to love. And when this world has ground me into the dust, then with Christ