Thursday, December 9, 2010

Living in Two Worlds: Hope and Despair

Written for the Presbyterian Outlook blog ...


I find myself in two worlds: hope and despair.

I think the two are related, in a symbiotic way.

I get the uneasy feeling that hope needs despair in order to be hope, in any authentic way. Hope is a part of the faith I have in Christ, a faith that confronts the "realities" of the day, without flinching, yet rises above them to claim the providence of God, God-at-work, in all things. Without despair in things as they are, hope for things as they will be seems shallow and self-serving.

Which then makes despair an integral part of my spiritual layout. Not that I'm happy about that, but I'm in good company.

I think the Prophets are people of despair and hope, and sometimes the oscillation is severe (read Isaiah). Jesus speaks of his "troubled" heart (John 12:27), as well, and then speaks of "my joy" (John 15:11). I can't have one without the other, if I understand anything about the ways of God in my life.

Paul says that hope has a lot "invisibility" to it - things unseen (Romans 8:25), and then reminds us that it's the Holy Spirit that prays within us, for us and with us, when we can't see, with "sighs too deep for words."

I live in both worlds, and maybe you do, too.

I think Matthew lives in both as he pens the opening chapters of his gospel. He begins with an affirmation of faith in God's ordering of history (Chapter 1), then moves the reader into some of the dark materials of our world (Chapter 2) and then blends it all together in Chapters 3 and 4.

The Gospels help me with despair - not to move me out of it, but to bear it, as a cross, in the name of Jesus, and bear it with hope in the providence of God.

If despair takes hold, and I live only in Chapter 2, what with the conniving of Herod and his bloodlust for anyone who threatens his throne, my spirit grows heavy.

Yet, if I try to live only in hope, with sweet nostrums piled high all about me, my spirit objects, for what right do I have to escape from sorrow and sadness when millions of human beings are condemned to mean and miserable lives, for want of justice and peace?

To follow Christ is to spend time in both realms - in the darkness of Herod's world and in the brightness of a Magi's star.

To live with Jesus shedding tears on the brow of the hill overlooking Jerusalem and with his incredible forgiveness and reinstatement of Peter after the resurrection.

I live in both worlds - maybe you do, too.

Tom Eggebeen, Interim Pastor
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Los Angeles, CA

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Following the Script

The more conservative the congregation to which someone belongs, the more likely I hear in their conversation "the script."

This is rarely the case for Presbyterians, whatever their persuasion, though I find this happening with a bit more frequency as fundagelicalism takes root in our congregations - what with easy praise music and the four-point therapy message, with appropriate screen images, and the need to always be "victorious."

As if, before anything else can transpire in the conversation, sort of like clearing the throat, a certain number of "god-honoring," or "Christ-witnessing" statements must be said, and said in such a way as to impress upon the hearer the "victory" of the gospel.

We all use our scripts, I suppose, in order to establish, both in the mind of the speaker and the listener, the lay of the land. I suspect folks are really trying to convince themselves, more than anything else, because life is scary and life is hard and life is confusing - realities to which various forms of fundagelicalism cannot and will not admit.

I don't like scripted language, because it's not real, even when the person is speaking of "their personal relationship with Jesus" or whatever else they may be trying to impress upon me.

Perhaps, since I'm a pastor, there's some urgency in the speaker's mind to be sure that I know they're saved and bound for glory.

Or, because I'm a Presbyterian pastor, some urgency to witness to the unsaved, which seems to be the status to which I'm assigned in conservative or fundamentalist circles.

In some respects, I think, the issue of "scripted christian-speak" falls under the category addressed by James when he writes, "Above all, do not swear - by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "yes" be yes, and your "no" be no, or you will be condemned."

Christians who try too hard are not likely to succeed in their witness, though God is merciful, and can use most anything to further the cause of the gospel.

But James, I think, hits the nail on the head with scripted language - don't use it. When we talk, let's talk authentically.

If we're afraid, then we're afraid ... if we're confused or uncertain, then so be it ... if we don't know how to say something, then be quiet. None of this is an affront to the Father who loves us and to the Christ in whom we have life, nor to the Holy Spirit who gives us words, and sometimes gives us silence, as well.

More than anything, I try to help such folks get beyond the script so they actually say what's on their mind and heart.

In the course of the conversation, I usually find them relaxing and being more at ease, because that's what honesty is all about ... when our "yes" is a yes and our "no" is a no.

To God be the glory.

Tom Eggebeen, Interim Pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary

Dear Friends,

Just finished reading the latest "Fuller: Theology, News and Notes" and was taken aback by a brief excerpt from Michael Novak's lecture (p.35).

If this quote represents the sum and substance of Novak's work, then I must raise a serious question about the purpose of the De Pree Center for Leadership - leadership of what? The people of God, the faithful in Christ, or the capitalist machine that is clearly revealing the fruits of a lot of bad decisions and flawed logic.

The few remarks printed struck me as nothing more than the same old nonsense we've heard from the Wall Street Journal and such, and to suggest that a "moral case" for capitalism can be made is stunning in its hubris - what with 40 million Americans without health insurance and millions more under-insured, and millions out-or-work, victims of the largest transfer of wealth in history - from the pockets of the many to the hands of the few, with millions of good and decent jobs sent overseas so that the giants of capitalism might improve their bottom line and continue in their media effort to manipulate the American people into believing that all is well, because all is well with the top 2 percent of this nation, who continue to whine, by the way, all the more, about the hardships of taxation and wondering how they'll pay for their next Bentley.

Novak is billed as scholar, yet gives no evidence of any scholarly sensibilities about China. I was stunned at the arrogance of his comments, offering a sadly simplistic analysis of China's development and "it's bet" as he puts. Goodness, it seems to me that we've bet the house and grandmother, too, and we're not faring very well at all; we've lost the house, and grandma has no health insurance. Some bet!

Fortunately,this bizarre lecture-description was bracketed by excerpts on "Walk Humbly with Your God" by Clayton J. Schmit and "Life-Giving Spirit" by Luke Timothy Johnson. How ironic that humility and Spirit would bracket such a bunch of big-money humbug.

Anyway, just thought I'd offer my two-cents' worth.

God's Peace.

Tom Eggebeen, Interim Pastor
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Los Angeles, CA

Merciful God, I pray thee to grant me, if it please thee, ardor to desire thee, diligence to seek thee, wisdom to know thee and skill to speak to the glory of thy name. Amen (Thomas Aquinas)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Mind, the Face, of American Christianity?

She had forgotten to “fall back” with her clock, what with being a visitor and staying with friends just down the street from the church.

As it turns out, upon moving to Colorado Springs 30 years ago with her husband, joined the First Presbyterian Church there, but then affiliated a few years back with Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, “Where,” she said, “we had those shootings” (no mention of Haggard’s troubles).

The conversation began when she asked, “Are there any evangelical churches nearby?”

I replied, “What do you mean by evangelical? We’re evangelical here.”

She said, “Oh, I mean non-denominational.”

To which I responded, “We have only denominational churches in the area. But, then, all churches are sort of denominational, including the independent churches who do a lot of things alike – sing the same music, and worship pretty much the same.”

She said, “Oh sure, but for me, it’s the Bible. I only believe what the Bible says.”

At which point, I changed the subject.

She joined with a few folks in my office for prayer and then stayed for worship. Afterward, she expressed gratitude for the day, though it took her awhile to adjust to a bulletin and a printed liturgy and hymnals.

I couldn’t help but feel sorrow for her, an otherwise bright-spirited person who loves the LORD, but without any personal awareness of the culture in which she has been living and moving for some years now.

When she retreated to “I only believe what the Bible says,” I knew that we had reached her limit.

How sad for her, and millions like her, who are fed spiritual pabulum by silver-tongued preachers in multi-million dollar buildings with the latest in technology, mindless praise songs – you know, the 7-11 kind – seven words repeated eleven times. And they leave these stainless steel sanctuaries convinced that they “believe what the Bible teaches” and that “denominational churches” are suspicious.

No wonder the confusion in American religion, but don’t for a moment think that I believe our mainline gang is in any better shape, conservative or liberal.

American Christianity, by and large, stopped thinking some time after WW2, or so it seems to me, though I think the antecedents in a Billy Sunday and the bully pulpits of the big-city churches during the Roaring Twenties had already started the full retreat from mindfulness.

The influx of post-WW2 millions into the churches, in quest of stability, home, marriage and the suburban life, guaranteed the church’s material success, but at what price for the faith? Then came McCarthyism, Eisenhower and the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and our all-out war against god-less Communism. Then Billy Graham, who took Billy Sunday’s world and mainstreamed it, and before you know it, millions were singing “Just as I Am” and signing up for Jesus, while leaving their minds in the parking lot, only to retrieve it later, untouched by the gospel now held so dearly in their hearts.

All of this, allowing American Christians to embrace the central sin of the Book of James, faith without ethics, or faith without works. Or at least the kind of works envisioned by James – to confront and overcome partiality driven by appearances, boasting about tomorrow and a growing love of riches, little of which seems to bother contemporary Christians in America.

Meanwhile, our seminaries have suffered deeply under the pressure to turn out “leaders” who can compete in the religious marketplace with all the tools and styles inherent in the American entrepreneurial spirit.

All of this, abetted by the rise of the megachurch (safe and comfortable) led by charismatic pastors generally skilled in teaching and preaching but shy on theological discernment – relying a great deal on slogans, mission statements, splendid graphics, inspiring praise music, gripping dramatic presentations and “I believe what the Bible teaches.” Thus able to convince and energize their audiences, but not likely to move them along spiritually,

Mainliners themselves have little to crow about. Conservatives have hunkered down, taking refuge in their various confessions and theological traditions while liberals have jumped onto a variety political bandwagons. Neither group seems particularly interested in what the Bible truly offers in its multifaceted witness to God and what it means to be God’s people, often responding with, “But the confessions say …” or “the latest socio-psychological studies suggest….”

If the visitor from Colorado Springs is, in anyway, the face, or the mind, of American Christianity, we’re in trouble.

Though God will see us through, as God always does, in one way or the other.

But in the meantime, I hope and pray that the voices of reason and compassion, those who love Scripture and tradition, for liberals and conservatives alike, and all those who are willing to work hard at the faith, so that the faith can work hard in our souls, will not surrender the pulpit to mediocrity in the name of success, nor abandon people to the mindless slogans of religious marketeering.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Crystal Cathedral - Some Reflections

Churches come and go - they always have, they always will.The "latest," sooner or later, becomes old hat.
The American church is particularly susceptible to hitching its wagon to the newest star. Yeah, I've done it, too. But the latest word is never the last word - that, and that alone, belongs to something much better, or shall I say, to someone much better - God!
American Christianity prides itself on inventiveness, as if faith were a consumer product to be "improved" by the latest and biggest and glitteryest developer, and to that developer, everyone flocks. But the sun always sets, and there's always someone who turns out the lights for the last time.
Maybe one of these years, American Christianity will grow up, and quit chasing after the pot o' gold at the end of some imaginary rainbow, using nickels and noses as "proof" of some inside information that not even Moses could wiggle out of God (Exodus 33) - in fact, there is no inside information. But we keep believing there is, and we chase after it like mice in some kind of mad experiment, running until we drop. But fear not, we'll soon catch our breath, and someone or something else will come along to revive our spirits with new promises, new techniques, seminars, webinars and DVDs. Though, I wonder - the world turns, and maybe, just maybe, American Christianity is growing up a little bit - less infatuated with proving itself against itself, and all the one-upsmanship of too many pulpits. Maybe so ...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Electronic Giving to Your Church???

From a good friend and fine writer, The Rev. Bob Orr (ret.) ... on "electronic giving."

Why I won't ever do electronic payments to First Pres for my pledge

Yesterday in the 9:30 am worship there was an effective stewardship minute  delivered by a father who pays his pledge electronically.  While I see the convenience of this for him and for the church, I cannot go down this path. 

Now before you judge me antiquated, let me tell you that I'm a member of a credit union where I pay my bills automatically with monthly deductions from my checking account.  In addition I order things occasionally  on line and pay with my Visa card.  

So why don't I just take the easy step and contribute to the church electrically?   

Here's why - in the order of worship each Sunday there's an offering of tithes and gifts, an offertory, a doxology and a  prayer of dedication.  All of these elements of worship focus on the monetary offering whether it be in cash, coin or check placed in the offering plate as it's passed around the pews, up into the balcony and then carried by the ushers back down the center aisle and placed on the communion table.  For me this is a significant moment of worship.  

When I pledge in the fall I'm given the option of requesting envelopes and can choose the  weekly or monthly option.  It's a conscious choice for me to make my offering every week so that I have a physical act to do at this moment in worship.  It's a  gesture of returning to God that just wouldn't be the same with the press of a computer button.  

Sure paper could be saved and  trees left standing.  Sure the church would get my gift quickly and efficiently.   I could think of my church pledge as a "bill" and pay it along with my gas and electric bill, my car insurance, my groceries but I don't want to think of my pledge that way.  It's not a bill,  It's a gesture I want to make each week, writing that check on Friday or Saturday,  getting it in my shirt pocket each Sunday before heading out to the car and reaching for it at the appropriate time in worship.  

The man giving the stewardship message commented that his young daughter looked at him when the offering plate went by and said "shouldn't we put something in?" which prompted him to tell her that he gave electronically.  I want to put something in the offering each Sunday, not so someone will see me do so, but because I want to see me return some of my means of living to my Lord, to his church and to his people for local and international mission.   Somehow it's more real if I do it this way,  week in and week out.  It's part of my worship.  That's why I won't be giving electronically. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Covenant Coalition - Conservative Presbyterians and Where Do We Go?

One thing for sure, reading The Layman is akin to watching a hurricane from aloft – it spins and spins and spins some more, round and around a singular eye – the ordination of LGBT persons.
With this agenda, the Presbyterian Coalition comes out now in opposition to three amendments:
- 10-A, which aims to focus and sharpen our Ordination Standards with wonderfully traditional language.
-10-1, a proposed new Form of Government.
-10-2, the Belhar Confession, a remarkable document coming out of the struggle of South African Christians to find a way through and beyond the horrors of Apartheid.

There’s nothing imaginative about a hurricane, and there’s nothing imaginative in the response of the Coalition to the three amendments – though predictably predicable: in their eyes, all three amendments will be used to promote the ordination of “homosexuals.”
Which is to say, the current G-6.106b was never intended to promote either fidelity within marriage or chastity in singleness, but was a cleverly worded phrase to slam the door on the ordination LGBT persons in a same-gender relationship, or who, for reasons of faith and conscience, will not take a vow of celibacy.
But like all hurricanes, this one, too, is losing its strength.
How often can one say no? How long can one bar the door?
Perhaps that’s the fear behind their rejection of Belhar – a reminder that justice prevails ultimately, and though the road to justice is full of landmines and barbed wire obstacles crafted by the guardians of the old order, the new thing God is doing to further the cause of justice in God’s world gains headway and strength from the opponents standing in its way.
In the same issue, it’s noted that the Colonial Church near Kansas City has voted overwhelmingly to leave the PCUSA and seek affiliation with the EPC.
And to that decision, I can only add my blessing and peace.
Our history is full of separations for all kinds of reasons – Presbyterians share this in common with the whole of Christendom.
Splits happen in bowling, and they happen in the church, too.
Until such time as the Millennium is upon us, we will struggle with our frailties, doing the best we can to honor the LORD Jesus Christ.
I honor the LORD by working for the ordination of LGBT persons, marriage equality and the right of our clergy to officiate at LGBT weddings.
While some would call me apostate, I think it’s time for us to quit such name-calling and simply get on with our respective visions, in separate churches, if need be, allowing for a gracious separation.
Perhaps we can yet work out some kind of a local option for Presbyteries and/or congregations, and I’d be willing to live with some such arrangement.
But as much as the Coalition fears the ordination of “homosexuals,” I long for the day when we will be able to ordain whomever the LORD calls to ministry, trusting our Presbyteries with the time-honored task of guiding and examining those within its boundaries, determining their suitability for ministry.
Enough, okay?
Let’s work out a peace treaty of some sort where we can all following the dictates of our conscience and faith, interpreting the Scriptures and Confessions as the Spirit leads.
And if we cannot craft a peace treaty, then let’s declare an armistice, a cessation of hostilities, and let’s all go home to our families.
There’s been enough blood shed on both sides! 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Anti-Islamic Sentiment in America

John Buchanan, editor of The Christian Century and pastor of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church, writes poignantly of his loving grandmother's seething mistrust about Roman Catholics, and how radio evangelists with their lurid publications promoted hatred and raised lots of money.

Here is John's fine editorial, from the September 21 issue:


In his New York Times column (August 22), Nicholas Kristof wrote about the controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan: "For much of American history, demagogues have manipulated irrational fears toward people of minority religious beliefs, particularly Catholics and Jews . . . Today's crusaders against the Islamic Community Center are promoting a similar paranoid intolerance, and one day we will be ashamed of it."
His column reminded me that members of my family, showing the influence of their Scottish/Irish ancestors, believed that the pope was behind a Catholic conspiracy to take over the government of the United States. I used to sit on the front porch with my grandmother, otherwise the gentlest, most unconditionally loving person in my young life, while she regaled me with stories about what was going on under the dome of the Roman Catholic cathedral one block away. They're storing guns in the basement, Grandma assured me, and I imagined that the windows in the dome were gunports through which "they" planned to fire on the rest of the city.
Grandma was a lifelong Presbyterian, but at some point she stopped attending church and began to listen to radio evan­gelists and to send them modest contributions. Her mail was full of the radio evangelists' newsletters and gospel tracts with vivid pictures of the devil and the fires of hell devouring hapless sinners—along with appeals for more money. Some of it was benign. She adored Billy Graham. But some of it was toxic: anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant. As she aged, my grandmother became more dependent on the radio preachers. She also subscribed to their newspapers for me, including The Sword of the Lord, which condemned ecumenism, mainline church leaders and the civil rights movement—in short, everything I found compelling about the Christian church and its worldview. Nothing galvanized editors of that publication like Catholicism; when John Kennedy ran for president, The Sword of the Lord and Grandma knew that the end was near.
I loved my grandmother and treasure the memory of her love for me, but I'm ashamed of her worldview, and I cringe at Americans' recurrent irrational fear of minorities.
The most tragic dimension of that irrational fear is the way it is exploited by politicians. I cannot comprehend how otherwise sane and thoughtful people can conclude that an Islamic com munity center two blocks away from Ground Zero is inappropriate—not to mention dangerous—and think that the religion of the Qur'an is any more violent than much of the religion of the Bible. It's not a mosque and it's not on the site of the World Trade Center twin towers, but even if it were, the right of all Americans to pray and worship how and who and where they choose is one of the most important rights and values of our nation. It is not negotiable.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Purpose of a Confession

" 'Confessions' exist for us to go through them (not once but continually), not for us to return to them, take up our abode in them, and conduct our further thinking from their standpoint and in bondage to them. The church never did well to attach itself arbitrarily to one man - whether his name was Thomas ... or Luther, or Calvin - and in his school to attach itself to one form of doctrine. And it was never at any time good for it to look back instead of forwards as a matter of principle" (Barth, in Eberhard Busch's biography, p. 375).

The church is always tempted to find a place wherein it can find shelter; the only problem is this: such shelters are never God, but always our poorly constructed houses of straw.

Because standing in the shelter of God never quite feels safe enough for us, and, indeed, it's not all that safe.

God takes us on a great adventure, and sometimes our hearts are not up to it, and we want to find a pleasant tree somewhere in Palestine and settle down beneath its pleasant shade ... or on the Mount or Transfiguration, at least build booths for everyone.

The history of the church can be seen, I think, as a constant tussle between the heart's desire for security and the Spirit's call to adventure.

When things get dicey, the church hunkers down in the bunkers of orthodoxy. But what a loss, for in the very things we call dicey, God is at work. In one sense, hunkering down is a genuine loss of faith - faith in God and God's providence.

When things get dicey, the church goes looking for heretics so as to silence the inner voices of our own doubt (always our companion, though mostly quiet) and the voice of God, beckoning us onward.
If we trust God's providence, knowing the perfect love of Christ, a love that casts out all fear, then we can be brave and confident and bold in our faith, even as we are humble and patient and respectful before the mysteries of life in a myriad of human beings and ideas.

Fear, and the enemies it makes, destroys our faith.

But welcome and affirmation gives wings to our faith, faith in God who is creator of the world, and remains the decisive factor in it's history, gathering up everything - the good, the bad and the ugly - into the unfailing energy of redemption and the eventual new heaven and new earth. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Jane Spahr on Trial - Presbyterian Church

As I read today's note (August 24, 2010) in the LA Times about Jane Spahr to be tried by the PCUSA, I couldn't help but think of the text for this past Sunday, Luke 13:10-17, Jesus setting a woman free from 18 years of affliction, and doing so on the Sabbath, to make a point (he and the lady could have waited 24 hours) - healing is what the Sabbath is all about.

And then the synagogue leader weighs in - scolding folks, "Hey, we've got six days for work, and if you want healing, come on those days, but the Sabbath is for rest - keep it holy - no work!"

And that's when Jesus lays into the leader and his gang, "You hypocrites. You wouldn't treat an ox or donkey this way - you lead them to water on the Sabbath, so why deny the water of life to this woman on the Sabbath? What better day is there for revealing the love of God and the freedom therein?"

While Jesus stood on the intent of the law, the leader clung to the letter of the law. And according to the law, the leader was right and Jesus was wrong. 

So, here we go again, arguing about our laws.

And missing the point of the kingdom of God.

Jane Spahr is technically wrong, if that's the tact we wish to take. Jesus was wrong, too, and someone might have told him, "Wait 24 hours. Then do your healing. No one will be offended, the law will be maintained and everyone will be happy."

But Jesus didn't wait, because love and mercy and forgiveness and hope can't wait.

So ... we'll drag Jane into the mud of our own foolish little world of rules - rules that keep people bound - hungering and thirsting for a better day.

We wouldn't treat a dog this way.
But people?

Yeah, keep 'em tied up, and tie 'em up all the more with rules upon rules, until no one knows which way is up.

Sure, I am what I am - a supporter of marriage equality, comfortable with the biblical work done by Jack Rogers and others.  

And I've been called an apostate, a heretic and a servant of Satan.

No one has the final word, and I surely don't claim that, but with prayer and study, I've made my decision some years ago to no longer wait, and just to keep myself honest, I continue to study and think about these things.

But I write this note with a certain conviction, that Jane Spahr is pointing the way ahead, reminding us what the church and our faith is all about - setting people free. While the charges fly and the legal briefs are prepared, the PCUSA finds itself in the uncomfortable place of the synagogue leader.

That's how I see it these days.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Enemy Within

Have ya' read the latest "Layman" (August, 2010) and its "Letters to the editor"?

The anger runs deep.

And I'm sympathetic ... there have been times in my life, more than I like to admit, when anger, self-righteous anger (which, of course, all anger is, right?), ruled the day, and the night as well, violating the advice of Scripture, to not allow the sun to go down on one's anger.

The problem with long-standing anger is that it's never accurate in its assessment of the situation. Anger, like a magnifying glass, focuses the heat of a legitimate concern into a white-hot beam that destroys.
The letters in this issue reveal a loss of control. Anger has simply taken over mind and heart.
The enemy, the PCUSA, is all wrong. Which, of course, in even the worst of all times, wouldn't be true - after all, even a broken watch is right twice a day.

I feel for the letter-writers. They've painted themselves into a corner, and there's no way out for them right now. So the corner becomes home, and though the corner is always an uncomfortable place in which to live, it's defended with growing intensity, until all the corner-dwellers have convinced themselves they're living in theological luxury.

There would be a way out, if they could rise above their anger and temper their opinion with the simple reality that the "enemy" is more within them than anywhere else.

And a good dose of humility. But corner-dwellers cannot afford humility, because humility requires some sense of appreciation for the very people being vilified, and a sense of personal incompleteness - that whatever the opinion, the judgment, the theological point of view, no one has a full and complete grasp of God's truth and God's Kingdom.

We are what we are. Fully human and deeply sinful. And all the creeds in the world, and all our protestations to the contrary, our frailty and our fault remain.

Self-righteousness, amplified by limited conversation with other corner-dwellers, exits on all sides of any given question.

The challenge for any of us is this: how to hold an opinion (and that's what it all is, after all) firmly and faithfully, without drifting into ideology (always the danger, and let's just call it idolatry).

My heart goes out to the letter-writers. They're profoundly unhappy, and if they're pastors, my heart goes out, as well, to their congregations. That kind of anger walks into the pulpit most Sundays, for sure, and spills out into the pews, tainting the gospel with the aroma of rot.

So be it.

Church history is the story of our fightings with one another. I guess such will be the case until the final trumpet is sounded.

But until then, does not the gospel call us to something other than merely being angry with one another?
Is there not the Holy Spirit upon whom we can call, and whose influence might temper our restless hearts?
After all, said Paul, our enemies are not flesh and blood, but spiritual powers and principalities.

I think there comes a time when God walks away from a persistently angry person or organization. As in Paul's letter to the Romans, God abandons us to "shameful lusts," and there is no greater lust than the lust to be right, and no greater shame than the willful condemnation of one another.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Much Ado About "Believing"

American Christians have made much ado about "believing," which is just fine if there's adequate knowing. But in the last 50 years, large portions of American Christianity have settled for "believing" with lots of emotion, and even commitment, without the knowing (both progressives and conservatives have surrendered the depths and heights of the faith).

I'm inclined to think that believing is a good thing, but one can't always believe - sometimes we doubt, and sometimes darker moods prevail. 

But what can never be taken away, never waver is knowledge. Knowledge of the creeds and doctrines of the church. Of course, this isn't belief, but knowing well what scripture and tradition offer us is a genuine foundation, and if someone knows well what faith is all about, in terms of belief and behavior, the believing occurs, I think, more naturally. It no longer needs to be reinforced by hype and drama, but grows evenly and surely, if not surprisingly.

For pastors to be rabbis, above all else. Teachers!

And for congregations to pledge a new loyalty to learning - not always the most exciting thing, but let's not measure things by their excitement factor. 

If we could liberate our congregations - indeed, our American congregations, and youth groups and Sunday Schools, from their addiction to "entertainment" and "excitement" and "fun" and all the other bloated adjectives and adverbs we use these days and just be about "our Father's business," we'd do everyone a huge favor, and might, once again, become for our land "the salt of the earth and the light of the world."

All of this must be done, of course, without the harshness of dogma - but with the sweetness of Christ. 

For our congregations to become places of great learning, we need pastors and elders committed to great teaching - a renewed passion for discipleship, student-ship! To be covered in the dust of the The Rabbi!

Let's free our pastors from the hideous pressures of "building the numbers" and "seeing to the lawn" and forever "calling on Widow Brown." Let's recover the "teaching elder" dimension of our tradition so that our congregations will be repositories of good knowledge, that our pulpits will be sources of steady and, yes, even inspiring, knowledge of the texts, the traditions and the times! That our youth groups and our Sunday School classes will have serious dimensions of learning the faith - catechesis and reflection, to buttress the legitimate "fun and games" that children and youth deserve.

At first, visitors might well sample all of this, and turn away, seeking a much more intense version of the "fun and games" so peculiar to American Christianity, but I believe in God at this point, and God will save those whom God is saving, and we can rely upon God ... if only God can rely upon us!

That when a visitor should come our way, they will meet depth and height and width and breadth, the likes of which will intrigue their soul and invite further inquiry ... and who knows, one-by-one, "lost souls" will be given, by the Holy Spirit through out faithful and thoughtful witness, a vision of the Kingdom of God.

posted originally at the Presbyterian Outlook.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Am the Enemy

According to The Layman, I am everything that's wrong with the Presbyterian Church. My theology is apostate, my ethics are hideous; apparently, I have given up on Jesus Christ years ago, I have abandoned Scripture, thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and I am leading the church down the road to perdition.


I got up this morning, brushed my teeth and shaved. I read a book and read my Bible. I worked on the July 4 message and will prepare the liturgy later today, a day late, because I've been home with a nasty cold - no doubt, some form of punishment for my wicked ways.

I love my children and they love me.

I love my wife, and she puts up with me, and that's miracle enough for any day.

I have friends, new and old, and I constantly receive notes from folks, via Facebook and the mail, thanking me for my ministry - a very humbling thing, of course, because any minister worth her salt realizes that it's grace, and grace alone, that enables us to touch a person's life with hope.

But I'm the enemy, according to The Layman, and I'm responsible for the decline of the Presbyterian Church the last 50 years.

When I think about it, that's a pretty serious charge, and I've given it some thought. I've granted to The Layman over the years the benefit of the doubt, and I've tried to listen to their concerns.

From my point of view, there's enough blame to go around, and who can blame anyone for the vast cultural changes affecting our world.

I don't think it's a question of blame?

I think it's a question of opportunity. Look, things have always been in flux, and there have been times of social prosperity for the church (history makes painfully clear that social prosperity doesn't always equate faithfulness) and times of displacement. So, what's the big deal?

Didn't Paul counsel Timothy to preach the gospel, in season and out of season? I think if we spent far less time blaming the other guy and simply did our best, as God has laid it upon our hearts, we'd be a far healthier voice to the world.

Oops, I forgot. We'd still have to make justice decisions, wouldn't we? Especially with regard to our LGBT sisters and brothers, and corporate greed and investment policies and militarism and war and poverty and education. As long as some want to keep the door closed to LGBT persons, I work to get it open, all the way.

Anyway, I'm trying to figure out what "an enemy" looks and feels like.

I feel pretty friendly this morning. And aside from a little weight I'd be happy to lose, I look pretty good, too.

So, I don't know what "the enemy" feels and looks like. Guess I'll have to read The Layman a little bit more.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Changing Times in Evangelical World

Huge changes in the evangelical world are shaking that world to its foundations.

For some 40 years, mainline churches have looked with grudging envy at the megachurches and evangelical growth. It became a truism in the church - mainliners are in decline and evangelical churches are growing.

Statistics now prove otherwise. American Christians have always been highly mobile, and the "growth" of the evangelical churches represented more a shift in population than actual conversions, though they reached a younger generation missed by the mainline groups. But many of them and their children are having second thoughts and casting an eye outward.

It seems that the vaunted power of the evangelical movement is grinding to a halt, as do all movements.

Which is to say, mainliners are being given a fresh opportunity. We can't set back, but we can sit up, and pay attention. We have gifts for the world, and God's Holy Spirit, never content to rest anywhere, may be moving people in some new directions - and it may mean new life for the older denominations.

I saw some of that Easter Sunday as I watched the children and youth process with the lilies, to build the lily cross that graces the pulpit on Easter Sunday.

Something like this wouldn't pass muster for the megachurch and its high-end productions ... but it's precisely what makes Christianity so vital - thousands of smaller congregations faithful to Christ, knowing one another and working together. It's not about polish, we're finding, but purpose. Smaller, more intimate congregations may offer exactly what Americans need these days - closeness and purpose, and something a bit more relaxed. Folks get to know the pastor, and the pastor gets to know them.

There will always be large congregations, but the world is shifting ... again. Churches faithful to Christ and loving of people, with wide open doors and wide open hearts, will find the Spirit of God paying them a visit regularly!

To check out what an evangelical has recently written about all of this, click HERE to read.