Thursday, May 28, 2009

Unwinding a Past that Holds a New Church

"Do not be deceived," the Word of God says. "God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow." We certainly are reaping a bitter harvest for the last 25 years of conspicuous consumption; and the harvest is far from over. The consequences of the economic bankruptcy of the U.S.A. have not even really begun to be felt-- and already many are asking, "is it over yet?" This will unwind for years-- perhaps decades-- as the generations that did not enjoy the excesses that generated the debt receive the privilege of suffering to pay it.

Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. We are watching a venerable-- perhaps in American history, the venerable-- institution of Christendom slowly evaporate. The Presbyterian Church (USA) and all its preceding branches once represented the strong Christian current that de Toqueville said flowed through American life. As that stream abandons its former course, venerable stone piles become nothing more than available real estate, thousands of bright-eyed young folks bankrupt themselves to discover that there is no institution ready to embrace their dearly-bought pastoral skills, and many middle-managers in the gleaming GM corporate superstructure at 100 Witherspoon and 173 presbyteries find out that there is no place for them.

But do not be deceived. The vast current that de Toqueville described is still present-- at the moment it flows underground. But there are places where, like an Artesian well, the Living Water is bubbling to the surface. Serving in such a place, with such a people, is an amazing privilege. Christ is still opening hearts and minds, healing lives; the Holy Spirit is still breathing through the Word into homes, offices, schools(!) and communities.

The PC(USA) is unwinding-- it will take years, maybe decades. We, who did not enjoy the heyday will spend our working lives in the dusk and night that have succeeded it. But even now, glimpses of dawn are visible on the periphery, here and there. You reap what you sow-- "preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words," as Francis of Assissi put it. The opportunity to obey Christ and to sow seeds of eternal life is always right in front of us. The Holy Spirit that created the vast current on which we have lazily floated is still moving. Join Christ where He is active around you on this Pentecost, and trust that when harvest time comes, neither Christ nor you will be disappointed.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Faith in Christ vs. Sinful Reality of Things

The one thing that trips up and stunts Christians in growing closer in their walk with Christ is the stunningly unchanging ugliness of the reality of things. No matter how much soap and disinfectant one can muster and effectively administer, this world defies our ability to clean it up.

I have the privilege of watching this both in the larger part of the Church to which I have been called, in the congregation, in our city, and even in myself. I am trying to find a way to connect Christian folks to one another across theological divides in the PC(USA), across racial divides in Dallas and in OCPC, and trying to find healing for my own sin-stained soul. In each case, there is plenty of evidence to support the case that despair is the only logical outlook.

We talk happy talk while presbyteries, congregations, and pastors continue to die in the midst of these calamitous times. I have sat through six months of meetings on how to improve our neighborhood, happy talk and hope that somebody will rain money down on us and make everything better being our preferred solution-- when the pastors in our neighborhood won't talk to one another unless there is a camera or some other form of reward present. Black and white, the congregations just keep on doing what they did, telling Jesus that talking to the other person is somehow Christ's work, not ours. The old truism that"there's a black Oak Cliff, and a white Oak Cliff..." is just crushing my ability to shout back, "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, black nor white..."

We talk love, and we live comfort. We talk reconcilation, and live out-- at best-- measured revenge and isolation. We praise Jesus Christ for taking the weight of our sins, and then decide He won't mind if we add a little more to His burden. We thank God that we are right, and at best pray for the miserable sinner who disagrees with us, "Lord I thank you that I am not like other people, like that....there." We continue in the pastors' union to, as William Sloane Coffin put it, "assuage the conscience of the law-abiding prosperous" and to measure ourselves by their self-satisfied happiness.

In the face of all this, what is the faithful Christian to do? Faith which finds its reward quickly is rarely ever genuine. Faith in Christ leads to the cross, not the throne. Yet we are constantly needing Peter's reminder, "do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you." Like it or not, running into reality with your heart filled with Christ's love always feels strange.

This world's power to hurt and destroy will never cease to take our breath away. Our job is to not stop breathing. This world will always have an uppercut that can put love on the mat in one vicious, powerful contact; our job is to get up again, and let the world land the next blow saying as it has said to all of us, and to the One Whose path we follow, "Prophesy! Who is it who struck you?"

Christ alone can clean this miserable sin-stained world. Christ alone cleansed my sin-stained soul-- He alone can keep it that way. So, I get up, catch my breath, and go out to help a young man who has mountains to climb before he can reclaim a life on this earth, and an old man whose son he cannot help as the son's wife struggles with a cancer that may shortly take her from this earth. And the only thing I have is, "be not afraid...Christ is here," and to say with Him, "Take courage, and be of good cheer-- in this world you will have tribulation. But I have overcome the world."

That's all I need. Saddle up your horses, as Steven Curtis Chapman sings. We've got a trail to blaze.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Quiet Miracles

When Matthew records resurrection, the world shakes and thunder drowns out the everyday sounds of the world. But, in my life, resurrection has just snuck into the world on cat feet, as Carl Sandberg put it. Sometimes, even the person giving the news doesn't hear it.

Waiting in the waiting room today for a young man (21 years old) in stage 4 congestive heart failure after a virus left his heart mortally wounded, I was reminded of 6 months ago. We waited for hours, and then, a person calls on the phone who has so honed the gifts of heart, mind, and hand to routine habits of sight, thought, and action that they can reconstruct hearts. In simple graceless fact-filled sentences, they hand a life back to an astonished family grateful beyond words. It is just another day for the surgeon and the nurses, but for Eddie it is a new day-- a whole new life.

I sit listening to the blogosphere, reading and trying to process all the churn of information and analysis that I swim in every day, and I wonder where the quiet resurrection is happening in me, and around me today. Preaching on the parable of the sower at Grace Presbyterian Village ( a retirement home nearby), then visiting those who cannot get out of bed to come to the service has a way of opening my eyes. So, a sower goes out to sow... quiet miracles.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In Other Words...

My mentor, Oswald Chambers, sums up the path that I, and I hope we, will walk through this time to arrive at God's purpose and place for us:

A spiritually minded man will never come to you with the demand - "Believe this and that;" but with the demand that you square your life with the standards of Jesus. We are not asked to believe the Bible, but to believe the One Whom the Bible reveals (cf. John 5:39-40). We are called to present liberty of conscience, not liberty of view. If we are free with the liberty of Christ, others will be brought into that same liberty - the liberty of realizing the dominance of Jesus Christ.

Always keep your life measured by the standards of Jesus. Bow your neck to His yoke alone, and to no other yoke whatever; and be careful to see that you never bind a yoke on others that is not placed by Jesus Christ. It takes God a long time to get us out of the way of thinking that unless everyone sees as we do, they must be wrong. That is never God's view. There is only one liberty, the liberty of Jesus at work in our conscience enabling us to do what is right.

Don't get impatient, remember how God dealt with you - with patience and with gentleness; but never water down the truth of God. Let it have its way and never apologize for it. Jesus said, "Go and make disciples," not "make converts to your opinions."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Magnificent Opportunity

On her blog comments, Viola Larson wrote: Clay I would like to see you enlarge on this, "We have a magnificent opportunity to witness to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we can find a way to keep Christ in the center of progressives and evangelicals." And please say exactly what you mean.

This blog has been enlarging on this subject for the past few months. So, now I will attempt to define the opportunity in front of us. The structure of this definition is: thesis, illustration, application.

THESIS:We have an opportunity to prove to this culture that those who have every reason to fear/avoid/antagonize each other can live in the love of Christ together. We can be one Body, even when we are unable to be of one mind.

ILLUSTRATION: In the early 1970's, Federal courts ordered the desegregation of schools across the USA by forced busing. In 1975, the first African-American family walked through the doors of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church. Protected and discipled by their pastor, Tom Currie, they rooted in the congregation, and soon were joined by other African-American families that were moving into the neighborhood.

As people yelled epithets at each other, whites literally gave away their homes to escape "them," stores closed, malls failed as whites "gave up" on the south of Dallas, kids-- both white and black--endured gauntlets of abuse entering strange schools they were told to attend, Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church continued to become more colorful. Sure, there were times when a black man walked into the men's room to catch the end of a "n---- in the woodpile" joke; there were people who left because "they weren't comfortable anymore," or "it's too long a drive" from where they moved up north.

As Dallas, like every other city in the US tore itself apart in the whirlwinds of social change, OCPC prayed together, worshipped together, ate together, cried together, rejoiced together. After 35 years, the congregation is still stably 45% African-American, 45% Anglo, and now 10% Hispanic as the neighborhood begins to change yet again. It is a lighthouse of hope to all who look to education as a leg up, to all who need the love of family in Christ. We are an anchor of hope and stability for those black neighbors who now fear the new folks moving in-- we can say to them, "it can be done. The blood of Christ really does cleanse all sin-- so what if they speak another language? We can find a way to be community together. We've done it before, we can do it again."

No one was asked to betray their culture; the only assimilating power was the love of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, a higher allegiance than culture or clan. In that higher allegiance, we have found not only hope for us, but for all of our neighbors-- we have found Good News that is good news to anyone with eyes to see, or ears to hear. Walk in to worship with us, and you can SEE our mission.

APPLICATION: What if we could find a way to live and worship, to love, cry, rejoice together in Christ our highest allegiance? What if, instead of dividing as this "Big Sort" set of generations prefers, we held on to one another, even--ESPECIALLY-- when we cannot agree with, or even understand one another? What if, instead of leading the yelling in this culture, we prayed with each other? What if we trusted one another because we trusted Christ, not because it was logical or easy?
SO, the next presbytery meeting you go to, (if you're like me) find someone wearing a rainbow stole, and share your heart with them, and ask them to share their heart with you-- and then pray. Look at the face of the person who is speaking ill of you and love them as Christ loves them; don't water down what you believe, but speak it in love, and expect to learn something from what you hear in return. In humility, regard the person who disagrees with you as better than yourself.

We have a magnificent opportunity to be Christ's witness in the way that we love one another. Is that clear enough, Viola?