Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Christian Life (Page 2 of 8)

Fragile Community

One of the women helping us develop a new web site for our church (jokingly, I think) suggested this for a ‘tagline’:

COVENANT PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Trust us; you’re not too weird to fit in here.

There is a sense in which this works, or should work. Churches should be welcome places for those weary of trying to fit in a world that does not easily tolerate difference. No one should be too weird to fit in.

Our actual tagline is the far more sophisticated ‘Building Gospel Community.’ We believe that the church should be a community living out the truths of God’s kingdom in such a clear way that a world longing for shalom will be attracted to that kingdom and its King. Apparently we are not alone in this aspiration. Christine Pohl in her book Living into Community identified this as a trend.

For the past twenty-five years, scholars…have emphasized the importance of the church as a ‘contrast’ or alternative community, and have argued that Christians can challenge the beliefs and practices of the larger society by the beauty of their shared life. (8)

This, we are convinced, will have a far more long lasting and profound impact upon a struggling world than the failed attempt to shape culture by political power and verbal dominance. In a book tour for her book Absence of Mind, novelist Marilynne Robinson captures the hope for such intentional community:

Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess.

A gospel community, a community where Christians, even weird ones, are being Christians, is what we are after, and what we think the world needs. The problem is that we may not be sure what such a community looks like. We know what ‘church’ looks like, but not such a clear-visioned intentional community. What will such community look like?

Should the church emulate monastic communities by sharing space and goods and vocation? Or should we rather aspire to be a community set apart by language, custom, and dress, like the Amish? Do we know? Are we saying, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said regarding pornography, “I know it when I see it”? Will we know community when we see it?

Conservative Jewish scholar Yuval Levin argues in his book The Fractured Republic that strong communities of faith are vital for the promotion of human flourishing in an age that feels gravely fragmented. He defines genuine community as

…a concrete, tangible grouping…that gives you a role, a place, and a set of relationships and responsibilities to other particular human beings. (181)

This is a useful starting place. Many others could be posited. But Levin reminds us why we need to ground our conceptions of community in reality. If community involves human beings, it will be hard. Christine Pohl pointedly observes that

The winsome and life-giving character of Christian community is often accompanied by profound difficulties arising from disagreements and betrayals…. The testimony of our shared life is crucial, but it is also fragile. (8, 9)

Community is crucial, but it is fragile. Community is critical, but people will hurt other people in the pursuit of it. That can’t be helped, but the pursuit of it cannot be abandoned. If we are aware of the difficulty, failure will not surprise us, and imperfection will not dissuade us. Community is fragile. Most beautiful things are.

So Goes the Church

Issues that matter seem to be landing as profusely and as suddenly as the frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s remarkable film Magnolia.  As a Christian pastor, I want to speak intelligently and helpfully to the issues, for they do matter. But I do not want my responses to be based on uncertain information or misinformation. I want my responses to be reflective and careful. And I plead that I don’t often have time to pull that all together before another frog has dropped and the world is off in another direction.

One of my pastoral heroes, the late John Stott, alluded to two errors pastors confront when addressing controversy.

Our task as preachers, then, is neither to avoid all areas of controversy, nor to supply slick answers to complex questions in order to save people the bother of thinking.

Complexity demands nuance, and nuance time, and under the protest of time I am silent. It may be rather that I am gutless. I need to take his words to heart.

Instead, it is our responsibility to teach them with clarity and conviction the plain truths of Scripture, in order to help them develop a Christian mind, and to encourage them to think with it about the great problems of the day, and so to grow into maturity in Christ. (Between Two Worlds, page 173)

The recent debate regarding immigration and refugee resettlement was stirred by the president’s executive order barring (temporarily?) immigration from certain countries (an act widely seen as one designed to close our borders to Muslim immigrants). When such issues surface, pastors are often told by good people what to preach. I resist such direction. Whether I do so out of wisdom or laziness I’ll let others determine. This time novelist Stephen King offered to choose my text for me.

I didn’t comply and so probably need to give up trying to get his autograph. (However, if Mr. King or anyone else is still interested he can listen to my sermon on that text from June of 2015. It may be still relevant to this situation.)

Others have been directing our attention to the book of Leviticus and its language of care for the stranger. As gratifying as that might be, I’m guessing that some of those doing so are not quite so fond of what it seems to say about homosexual sex or the viability of human life in the womb.

There are those telling me what to preach and those who want to make sure that what I preach does not impact the church’s tax exempt status. The president this week announced his intention to free churches and pastors to endorse political candidates.

On the one hand, I’m all for this. The government should have no more say over what I say from the pulpit than Stephen King, and if churches curb their message to gain tax relief, they have already voluntarily compromised that freedom.

I don’t endorse candidates from the pulpit, but the government’s preferences on that matter have nothing to do with that decision. It is utterly foolish to hitch the church’s wagon to a political horse. When the horse goes down, it takes the wagon with it. (It’s intriguing in this regard to watch Trump supporter, Eric Metaxas, twist and turn as he uncritically defends Donald Trump’s first two weeks in office.  But he must. It’s what one must do, individually, or as a church, when we have declared someone besides Jesus to be ‘our’ man.)

“Evangelical” Christianity used to be honorable. But what it once was has now been dishonored by wittingly or unwittingly allowing itself to be defined politically. In the process its vital message of the kingship of Christ and the supremacy of his gospel has been obscured if not lost. There is more wisdom in Stephen King counseling me to preach on a biblical definition of neighbors than there is in a church celebrating the ‘right’ to endorse a candidate. One can only bring good, the other only disaster.

So when some want to hear a sermon on the “Good Samaritan” or when others find biblical support for compassion in the remote outposts of Leviticus, they reveal good instincts. That instinct says that the biblical authors who form the framework of Christian faith and practice are those to whom we are to listen first in framing a response the the issues of the day. We are, as Stott reminds us, to “develop a Christian mind” and then “to think with it.” This we should do, but only after having first removed our nationalistic “America first” lens.

As Christians, Christ and his kingdom must always be first.

Breaking Good?

BREAKING NEWS: Bad stuff happened in 2016.

Among the many things I might say, that sentence is one which could probably get the most universal affirmation. Bad stuff has happened. The year that is past seemed to feed us an over-the-top diet of death and violence and loss and disappointment. I have seen many online express a longing for this year to be gone, a longing I sincerely get.

But, of course, we all know deep down that there is an artificiality to that longing. January 1 is an artificial marker in the temporal sand that could just as easily be drawn in mid March or late August. The rising of the sun on 1/1/2017 simply marks a time when we can turn our backs on what has passed and renew our hope for what might yet come, something which we could do any day if we chose.

At the same time, without disavowing the hard losses of 2016 it is important, it seems to me, to consider that the only thing we note in history is loss. We grieved his death this year, but no one but his immediate family took any notice of the birth of Alan Rickman. Even they, unless they were possessed of a prescience of which I’m unaware, did not look at him and say, “He will make such an endearing Professor Snape some day.” And I’m guessing there were no newspaper articles celebrating the birth of David Bowie and the gifts he would bring to the world. There were probably only a few that paid any attention when Prince was given his first guitar. Only a few are present at a birth, or at the beginning of any other path of greatness. And that makes me wonder how many paths to greatness were begun in the year past?

Perhaps fifty years from now, people will look back upon 2016 with different eyes and see that that was the year that the world was given an insightful novelist that everyone adores, or a gifted politician who brought an unprecedented unity to the world’s divisions. Perhaps 2016 was the year when a 15 year old girl is inspired by a science teacher whose name is known to few to pursue medical research, a girl who fifty years later is renowned as the single most influential person to arise in the fight against debilitating cancers. Who knows what might have invisibly happened this year that has set the world on a path of life and healing.

I’m a pessimistic sort. My muse is Eeyore and my bosom pal is Lewis’ Puddleglum. But weak as I am, I know that it is not a string of days we call a year holding the world together. Rather it is a God, whose ways we often don’t understand and frequently dispute. But his purposes for this world are ultimately good, and that knowledge enables me in the midst of the darkness to believe that something better will come.

Something better may, in fact, already be here. We just don’t know it yet.

Happy New Year.

A Shoot

dscn0894For nearly fifteen years, my wife and I, our children, and now our grandchildren have spent a week camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wealthy people have summer homes. We have tent pads and cook stoves. But it has been a precious way for us to stay connected and build memories together. We could tell you of the night we almost died (or thought we would), or the time in desperation we ‘made’ a shower, or the time and place where our (now) son-in-law proposed to our daughter. This is OUR summer home, albeit one we share with nine million others each year.

chimney-tops-fire

via Twitter, GSMNationalParkInfo, @GSMNP

So it was with particular sadness that we watched this week our summer home burn, or a part of it. Drought conditions and hurricane force winds fed the burning of over fifteen thousand acres of ‘our’ forest. In speaking of our own sorrow, I don’t want to diminish the agonizing human tragedy that has played out. Families have lost everything, children have lost their parents, parents their children. Our sorrow is minor by comparison. But we do feel a loss. We picture this beautiful canvas on which a portion of our family story has been written, scorched and torn, and it is hard. We feel a sense of loss.

But we know that there will come a time, perhaps in the not too distant future, when deep in the forest, obscure, far away from the TV cameras, unobserved and unnoticed something wonderful will happen. The crust of a burned over stump will crack slightly, and from that crack there will emerge a shaft of green. It will be small at first but then larger and reaching for the sun.

Genuine hope always begins that way.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse. (Isaiah 11:1)

And with that, everything changes.

Thanksgiving

Christ’s church in this world is fragmented, divided, contentious, and marginalized.

And then, it’s not.

I meet with a group of pastors from Oviedo (currently all men, which is a reflection of our community and not policy) the first Wednesday of every month for breakfast. We purposely have no agenda and we are discouraged from discussing our programs and plans.

We just eat. We share a meal together and that is it.

Conversation is organic and may include talk of church just as much as it may focus on family or sports. We are just guys eating breakfast. I wish I could export this simple vision to more program oriented pastors in other cities who are trying to unite their churches.

But program oriented pastors come and typically don’t come back, which is sad. “You don’t DO anything,” is the charge, and it is an accurate one. We don’t. And it is in the not doing that there is value.

We are, in a weird way, competitors. We are each pastoring churches we want to see grow. And yet, something is happening when we sit over bacon and eggs and that weird Spanish oatmeal that some were eating (or drinking?) last time. What is happening is that we are becoming friends. We are drawing close to one another and coming to love one another. That kind of thing can happen when you work hard at not doing anything. And when you eat together.

We do nothing so that when we do something, we can do so as friends.

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Once each year, we plan and host a community Thanksgiving service, which we did this past Tuesday night. Gathered in the chapel of Reformed Theological Seminary were over 200 Christians from churches in Oviedo. Mingling and worshiping side by side were those whom a pollster would delight in slicing into pet categories: white, black, Latino, independent, Presbyterian, Episcopal, old, young, exuberant, staid, and on and on. It smelled like heaven, and it was beautiful.

As I looked out over those gathered, I did not know 99% of them, but I loved them. I loved them because I love those who lead them. A unity among these Christians was being forged as their pastors did nothing together once/month, a nothing that becomes a significant something.

It may sound trite for me to say, on this November 24, 2016, this fourth Thursday in November, but I’m thankful for the church. But I am.

I’m thankful, certainly, for my precious local congregation which has loved me so deeply this past year. But my thanks is deeper. I’m thankful for the Church, the bigger expression of it, against which the gates of hell will never prevail, through which the kingdom of heaven is brought near to a broken world.

I got to glimpse a picture of that this past Tuesday night. I’m thankful I get to enjoy a taste of it every month. Over sausage and pancakes.

The Church as (inadvertent) Political Institution

In a reflective essay for the Religion News Service last Wednesday, journalist Kimberly Winston, confessing to being “a little bruised and scared” as a result of the recent presidential election, sought out a church in the city she was visiting so that she might find “some balm for a very banged-up, frightened spirit.”

She picked “a nearby evangelical church.” That the extent of her screening was “nearby” and “evangelical” surprises me a bit. A journalist who, as she said, is not “in search of a story” should know that a bit more research than THAT may be necessary to dodge the charged political environment that too frequently finds its way into public worship.

In February my wife and I, like Ms. Winston, found ourselves in another city over a Sunday. Like her, we were seeking gospel solace and refreshment in a local church. Before we got to the area, I researched churches online, beginning with those bearing the most affinity with my own tradition. We longed for gospel truth absent nods of praise to party, platform, country, or candidate.

We narrowed the search to a few that seemed to offer the greatest promise. Looking more closely, however, we found the profile picture of the pastor of one church showed him standing in front of an American flag. Too much risk there, we decided, and we removed that one from our list. I took a peek at the Twitter feed of the pastor of another candidate church, only to find it full of angry barbs taking aim at one of the major presidential candidates. We removed that one. And so it went. I suppose we, too, might have settled for ‘nearby evangelical,’ but we opted to stay in and forego public worship.

So, I empathize with Ms. Winston’s longing.

And whether she was consciously looking for a story or not, she certainly found it. In the sermon whose title, she found out, was “Make Jesus Great Again,” the preacher, an elderly woman,

…described Donald Trump as a “godly man” who is “God’s instrument” and “a miracle” — proof, she said, that a country can “only wallow in sin so long” before God sends a savior….

After a time Ms. Winston left, “more broken and in need of solace” than when she went in. That is sad.

pulpitBut here is the dilemma for preachers and the church. No one should be able to visit our churches without finding the comfort of the gospel. Everything we do should be infused with a message of grace. We should be defined by the gospel we preach, not by the political platform we support.

And yet, the message we preach is one that, properly considered, is inherently political. Jesus is king as well savior, and that will have political overtones. In seeking to articulate the kingdom of grace, our message may unavoidably sound political.

If, for example, we want to speak of love, we will drawn to Jesus’s clearest articulation of love for one’s neighbor. There he speaks of a man transcending racial and religious prejudices to sacrificially serve a stranger. If a preacher does not articulate the racial overtones of that story, he will have failed to apply it properly to his congregation and abandons them to be shaped rather by the loudest voices on radio, TV, or internet. If he does articulate the racial aspects, he exposes himself to the criticism that he is too political.

A church should not set out to make political statements, of course. But we do need to seek to shape thinking according to the Scripture. And this we must do with great humility and care. When, as my previous post suggested, the culture is caught up in nationalistic fervor, the church needs to embrace even more passionately its call to serve the kingdom of Christ. And this can be very hard.

I myself should probably not be so sensitive to preachers with flags or a pastor’s personal tweets. I have no intention of giving up on the church. I still believe it is the vehicle through which God intends to bring renewal. Sadly, Ms. Winston is not so sanguine.

“I have no plans to return to a church in anything but a professional role again.”

I hope she is speaking rhetorically. The church needs its best people now to plot a careful path through a difficult time.

The Post-Election Church

As I write this, the U. S. presidential election of 2016 has not yet taken place, although, given the ready availability of early voting, I have already voted. So, I do not know now what the state of our political landscape will be at the point this post goes live.

Like many, I have very strong feelings about this election. Normally I keep those under wraps, though the particular dynamics of this election cycle has made it harder than normal so that those who follow me here or on Twitter may not find my convictions too difficult to discern.

As a minister my commitment has always been never to identify with any one candidate or political party but to apply a biblical moral judgment to all. I supported the criticism of (Democrat) Bill Clinton’s moral failure during his presidency and I publicly called for the resignation of then Florida Senate president (Republican) John McKay who about the same time admitted to having an affair with an AT&T lobbyist.

When ministers and churches tie their horses to particular political wagons, when the wagon goes down, so do the horses with the resultant dilution of the Christian witness of that minister or church. The gospel message is too important to risk aligning with any one political party. It has been hard this election cycle to retain some semblance of neutrality as issues vital to Christian sensibilities were subsumed to fear and Christian concern for compassion and justice and mercy seemed to be assigned second place to concerns of personal liberty and economic and political prosperity. Where in the Bible is liberty championed as a cause greater than that of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger?

The election is behind us now and a new president has been chosen. The result will cause some to relax and others to fear. But what it should not do is alter in any shape the call and function of the church. The church is NOT to be a politically defined entity, though much we are called to do will have political implications. Our role is not in the least defined by who occupies the White House or sets policy in the legislative chambers. What defines us must be the call of Scripture to be those who love

To do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

As we are to be those who

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:14, 15)

Much could be said by way of developing these things which I won’t do now. However, I’m certain that these are the things we are to pursue regardless of the political order and climate.

To Be Alone

Emailing a friend this morning, I felt the urge to share something troubling me and to ask him to pray. A simple and common thing. But after hitting ‘send’ a question came to mine, “Why did I do that? Why did I ask him to pray?”

The answer should be obvious. I was asking a friend who loves Jesus to join me in prayer for a particular concern, and God invites us to do that. God tells us to share one another’s burdens in this way. So that was why I asked him.

As true as that is, I think there is more. A lot more. We ask others to pray for us so that in our pain and suffering and hurt we won’t feel so much alone. Suffering isolates us, and loneliness frightens us. A simple request for prayer fights back against the awful possibility of suffering alone. And this is as it should be.

In the creation, God saw only one thing that was not good.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone….” (Genesis 2:18)

And upon this declaration God gave a woman to the man and in an instant created community. Things then were good and neither were alone.

It is the searing damage of sin that breeds emotions such as these:

I have no need of friendship;
friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. (Paul Simon)

It is no incidental detail that the result of the fall was the maligning of community. In the chaos of sin the man and the woman hid from God and pointed the finger at each other. The direction of sin is always away from community. Sin makes us alone, or drives us to find community in harmful ways and unhealthy places.

Restoring things to the way they are supposed to be will always be a restoration of community. God saves us into relationship with himself and with one another. Union with Christ means union with his body, the church. This was the first of his acts of bringing his kingdom near, to create a community of disciples who show their relationship to him by the love they bear for one another. We are not meant to be alone.

When I asked my friend for prayer, it was an act of faith, but in ways far greater than I thought. To ask another to enter into our need is an act of rebellion against the sinful order and a definitive stand for the kingdom of God.

A member of our church is battling some serious injuries and surgical complications and his wife has kept me up to date with his status and has asked me, and the church, for prayer. This morning I drove to the hospital. I was not able to see him, but I was able to spend some time with his wife. When I walked in, she burst into tears. Why? It was not that I bore words of wisdom or could bring immediate healing to her husband of 41 years.

I believe it was because with my mere presence, she no longer felt as much alone, just as when I emailed my friend, I no longer felt as much alone.

And in these small ways we glimpse life as it is supposed to be.

Making Better Men

My contention in previous posts (here, here, here, and here) has been that we make better men by calling on men to be better people, not by building illusory models of masculinity imaginatively drawn from Scripture. Since posting, I’ve been gratified to stumble across others saying similar things, albeit with far greater erudition and eloquence. A recent post on the First Things site is entitled ‘Making Better Men‘, and it is worth a read.

Speaking of the male role models in his life, the author, First Things assistant editor Alexi Sargeant says:

The strength of both these fathers, physical and spiritual, was a humble one, in that they had no need to boast or domineer. They had the character to suffer wrongs patiently and trust in God rather than crave the accolades of men. I am grateful that my image of masculinity was formed by these men of faith and integrity. They modeled love and respect in their marriages and their friendships, building up the people God had placed in their lives with care, devotion, and joy. This unpretentious constancy is what men should strive for. When I ask my friends for their formative, positive male role models, the answers (real and fictional) were often men of quiet confidence and steadfast service, like St. Maximilian Kolbe or Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird.

That a lesser, as he calls it ‘a dingier’, sense of manliness is seemingly embodied in the popularity of Donald Trump is sad to me as I think it does reflect something of the confusion men feel as to what it means to be a genuine, or decent, man. Sargeant notes that

The virtuous man, by contrast, demonstrates both self-control and self-respect.

And he calls us to find, and to be, better role models.

To which I say, “Amen.”

More on Manliness

It was our date night, and my wife wanted to shop for some shorts. I was willing to set aside my natural aversion to shopping, and shopping for women’s clothes in particular, on a date night no less, in order to accompany her cheerfully and to earn some serious husband points in the process.

After visiting several stores we ended up at a Montgomery Ward department store, which dates this story a bit. As she was holding up a pair of shorts to the light, I said, “Why don’t you just buy this pair?” I suspect my patience was running out. She said something like, “Oh, I wasn’t going to buy anything; I’m just looking.”

I realized then what was meant by those who had said in messages about the differences between men and women that women shop, but men hunt.

That’s been a fun distinction to think about and, to an extent, joke about. When I go to the store, I set a bullseye to this item and a bullseye on that item. I grab them and throw them in the cart and leave. Barb will stop and read the labels and pause and think and consider. We cannot go to the store together. She shops and I hunt.

What I should NOT do, however, is to generalize from my own limited personal experience to say that this is a ‘masculine’ trait, an aspect of what it means to be a man. I should especially not hit the Christian speaker circuit (as if anyone would want me to) drawing that and other distinctions of dubious value which I doubt would stand up under clinical scrutiny. In fact, I suspect that there are other couples where the husband is more likely to shop, and the woman more likely to hunt. Is he therefore less man-like?

The effort to find a so-called ‘biblical’ masculinity is fraught with this danger. We ought never to generalize from our own cultural or personal experience distinctions which we observe as if they apply to all men or women. Nor should we legitimize these distinctions by calling them biblical. Whether I hunt or shop of course is fairly innocuous. But we baptize other instincts as ‘manly’ or ‘masculine’ such as dominance or vengeance or, even so-called ‘locker-room talk’. These may be in fact sinful instincts best overwhelmed by a pursuit of decency.

Film director Scott Derrickson noted recently that things such as racism and misogyny are in our American DNA. It’s worse than that. It’s in our human DNA. That’s not pessimism. That’s good theology, and rings more true than the hunting/shopping distinction. Untaught, unrestrained, unaddressed, and well fed it will grow into a cancer that will consume us. What is needed is a community of ordinary men and women embracing a contrary ethic, an ethic of decency, to lead us not to generalized and perhaps imagined standards of masculinity and femininity, but to be a people reflecting as much as we are able, the standards of the kingdom of God.

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