Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Christian Life Page 2 of 9

Especially in Nottingham

Some of us live squarely, if unwillingly, in Nottingham. We live where those close to us die in childbirth, where innocent drinks become desperate addictions, where brilliant minds descend into dark caverns of mental illness. We live desperate for hope.

If we pray, there are many paths along which those prayers could be shaped. The path followed by some of the Psalms led to imprecation, prayers wishing ill upon their enemies. Such prayers strike our gentle and sentimental sensibilities as too harsh and ill-fitting to be worn by Christians.That is, until we come face to face with our real enemies. Paul reminds us:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)

We can puzzle over the effective power of the forces of darkness, but we ought never doubt that their efforts are arrayed to harm us. It is against THEM, the agents of death and decay, that we pray. Language that sounds violent and inhumane becomes understandable against such an enemy.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:6-11)

Awful words these, yes, but not when aimed at one whose food is the infliction of grief and death and suffering and despair. To pray thus negatively, is to pray this positively:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9, 10)

To the degree God’s will is not yet manifest on earth, we pray that it would be, that our understandable fear would be replaced by the certain hope of the coming kingdom.

We pray harsh words against a bitter enemy, all the while longing for this:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:11)

Which is to cry out, with John and all the saints,

Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

Such prayers are never lost upon the God who cares.

Especially in Nottingham.

Not in Nottingham

At the heart of Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood is a song penned and sung by Roger Miller (and covered here by Mumford and Sons) which captures the heart’s anguish when life has penned us in with sorrow.

Nottingham was home to the poor people for whom Robin Hood robbed the rich. But even with his heroics, life grew grim. It was unfair.

Every town has its ups and down
Sometime ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham

To escape the despair one might flee, but when the oppression is so deep, the sorrow so profound, even that seems impossible.

I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave

Unable or unwilling to escape, an appeal is made for relief, but it meets only silence.

We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham

Pretty heavy fare for a Disney film.

The sequence over which the song plays is an image of rain falling on a people for whom all hope is lost. It’s an honest prayer of lament asking in despair, “Can’t there be some happiness for me?”

For the many who pray such a prayer, the response, it seems, is never more than the sound of rain on the pavement.

In some ways, it’s a biblical prayer. The psalmist prays in this way:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me. (Psalm 88:14-16)

There is, the biblical writers knew, a time for weeping and mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:4). And yet they did not shrink back from penning such honest laments because they knew, unlike the poor stricken residents of Nottingham, that there would, as well, be a time of laughing and dancing (also Ecclesiastes 3:4).

“Can’t there be some happiness for me?” Yes, they knew there would be. There is resurrection on the other side of death. And for that we long.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation. (Psalm 42:5)

VP Pence and My Mom

I didn’t know it was the ‘Billy Graham’ rule. I thought it was just sage advice from my mom.

Twitter, at least, has been all a-flutter (a-twitter?) with the surprising and shocking (?) revelation that Vice President Mike Pence operates with a policy of not dining alone with women other than his wife. I’m stunned that this is in the least bit controversial. I’ve not heard his justification for his policy. I’ve only heard what others, some bitterly opposed, have said about it. But since this was my policy for many years, I want to toss a few words into the fray.

After college I had the wonderful privilege of spending three years teaching English to seventh-graders. I liked that age. I loved their energy and enthusiasm and I loved seeing their minds begin to engage the world around them. They were old enough to begin to have intelligent conversations but they had yet to inhabit the cynical, cool world of the older adolescent.

My mom had for many years taught that age, and as I began my career one piece of advice she gave me stuck: don’t let myself be in a room alone with a junior high girl. In her experience, even in the 60s and 70s, all it took to ruin a man’s reputation was a girl’s accusations. True or not they could stain and ruin a male teacher. She wanted to protect me from that.

As I transitioned from teacher to pastor that counsel stuck with me, magnified by the terrible track record  of male pastors staying out of emotionally and sexually charged relationships with women. To not spend time alone with a woman – either in my study or over a meal (Starbucks was not a thing back then) – seemed at the time like a wise policy to adopt.

This policy did more than to protect my own reputation (and by extension that of the church). It gave my wife needed security. The tale is old as time, that a pastor under the guise of regular counsel of a woman moves from pastor to confidante to lover. And though I saw no reason that that would happen in my case, who does? It seemed wise to erect barriers that would give my wife an added layer of confidence.

My role was no where near that of a US Senator or Vice President. And I would never presume to demand that others embrace the rules by which I steered my life. But I understand how important reputation is and how easy it is, no matter who we are, to be careless in the preservation of it.

But as a policy it proved unsustainable for me. I pastored a small church in which I was often on site alone with a female administrative assistant or financial manager. Is there any greater stereotype than that of the pastor running off with the church secretary? But it was unavoidable, really, and so we did it. Not the running off, mind you. The being alone.

It was not only unsustainable, it was in the end unfair to women in need of spiritual and pastoral care. One could theorize that they could get that from their husbands or from other astute and wise women, but that was theory and not reality. My policy caused the neglect of sheep in my congregation in need of care. And so, eventually, I abandoned it.

I now meet with women, preferably in a public place (my mom’s voice is still in my head) when possible. Most of the time, my wife is aware, and she has the right and responsibility to speak to me should she perceive that any one relationship is receiving more attention than she thinks it should. I still am concerned about her sense of security.

Being Vice President invites the spotlight, and Mike Pence will no doubt have many things to answer for. But this should not be one of them. I can’t say if in his case he should or should not hold on to this policy. Looking in from the outside I’m inclined to say that it is impossible for him to do so. But I would never imply that his decision is reflective of weak character. It may be reflective of wisdom.

Or of listening to his mom.

The Decently Religious

The other day my son shared with me a picture taken at his workplace. It showed two publicly posted pieces of Jehovah’s Witness literature which someone had defaced with a sharpie, marred with images and words ridiculing the content of the postings and those who posted them.

We seem to live in a day when no one group is immune from hate, nor one group alone capable of perpetrating it. Christians have shown themselves more than capable of defacing and ridiculing the positions of others and Christians receive ridicule in return. And in both directions, it is tiresome. It’s why I so long for recovering the virtue of decency as a fundamental Christian, if not human, virtue. If we are to be attacked, let it be for our righteousness. And if we are to attack, let it be with kindness.

In expressing that longing, though, I reveal that I have bought into the public perception that Christians are in fact “Hate Filled Hypocrites“, to borrow the ironic title of one provocative book. That Christians are not decent is such a prevalent image of Christians that we all come to accept and believe it.

Stephen King is a wonderful writer with often marvelous characters. His Christian characters, however, such as those in Under the Dome or Needful Things are cardboard cutout stereotypes of fanaticism and bluster. I’m currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel, Elantris. Sanderson’s gift is in world building not character development, but in his world the really obnoxious, plotting, cynical characters are the religiously fundamental. We assume that commitment to a religious faith by definition means annoying.

Current controversy does not quell that supposition, especially when news outlets would rather quote the provocative outbursts of a Franklin Graham rather than the thoughtful expressions of a Tim Keller.

Public representations of Christians as extreme and hateful will never go away, especially as we Christians play to type. But I wish I could introduce to the world the large numbers of Christians known to me who have been and are decent men and women, though unknown apart from the few people around them. These are those who face struggles and cares, and yet find joy in the midst of them. They look for ways to serve, and they stoop to pick up others when they fall. None are perfect and all fail in particular ways. But they are genuinely decent people. I have been blessed by such people. I wish more people could know them.

These are not those who are measured and calculating in their religious life and expression. They just live pouring out love for God and for one another. These are those spoken of by the prophet Malachi.

Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. (Malachi 3:16)

These are the quiet ones walking humbly with their God and, it follows, loving mercy. They are the decent ones, the truly religious, of whom God says,

They shall be mine…in the day when I make up my treasured possession. (Malachi 3:17)

They are the apple of God’s eye. I wish you could meet them. I think you’d like them.

Lenten Joy

That Christianity is a life of receiving and not a life of doing is at the heart of the gospel of grace. It also is at odds with our popular conception and experience. We cannot shake the idea that Christianity is at heart a life of doing, a confusion that sometimes is unnecessarily heightened during Lent.

Christians peering into the season of Lent anticipate a period of denial where they are challenged to self-examination and repentance. They take themselves low to root out sin lurking in the dark corners of their person. As much as this is a necessary thing bearing much promise many of us cannot help but see it as a time of rejecting delightful things just because, somehow, we are not supposed to do delightful things. We have bought the misconception that Christianity is a matter of what we do, and in order to help us stop doing we have Lent. This is not, of course, the formal framing of Lent, but that this is how some perceive it is sad.

James B. Torrance, a Scottish Presbyterian scholar whose little book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace has recently been refreshment for me, reminds us what we lose when we make our faith primarily about what we do is joy. Repentance (of which much is said during Lent) is not an act we do in order to prompt God to forgive, but it is a reception by us of a forgiveness already given. Christianity is rooted in what God has done securing a forgiveness which we do not prompt but only receive.

We have a hard time with this because we can only think in legal terms. God is a judge before whom we stand confessing our sin. Our penitence, perhaps enhanced by a period of Lenten fasting, persuades God to forgive us and we go on our way. That all seems proper and right, but it is contrary to the spirit of the gospel of grace coming from our covenant keeping God who reveals himself as a Father. Repentance is not an act by which we persuade God to respond to our penitence with forgiveness. Repentance is rather our responding to his already secured and pronounced blessing of forgiveness.

Summarizing John Calvin, Torrance says,

“Repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace.”

On the cross of Christ the sacrifice has been offered and forgiveness pronounced, all prior to our confession and repentance.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son the father’s heart is gracious toward his son even when the son is in the pigsty. When the son repents and returns, he receives the father’s embrace, an embrace which the father was willing to give all along and which the father did not need to be persuaded to give.

Christians tend to enter Lent thinking they need to make themselves somehow more worthy of the Father’s embrace, that they, in some manner, need to act, to do, to urge him to be more forgiving. It is not that at all. Lent is a time for us to clear away the fog and see more clearly the vast measure of the Father’s kindness to us in Christ, that there is in fact no condemnation for we who come to the Father through the Son.

Yes, we are encouraged to take concrete action during Lent. We are encouraged to deny certain privileges, perhaps, or certain foods or other things ordinarily permissible. But we do so not to earn or curry the favor of God. We do so to clear away things that obscure our vision that we might more clearly and more joyfully receive the grace that is already there.

In this way, Lent is to be a joy. Let us with joyful anticipation enter in.

Community for the Self-absorbed Millennial

My post on community generated a couple of offline queries both of which, for different reasons, were referring to the idea that the church is failing to reach Millennials, that supposedly self-absorbed and entitled generation that Gen-Xers have unleashed on the world under the benevolent and clueless gaze of Boomers like me.

And yes, I think too much is made of those supposed generational distinctions, but that is for another day. I’ve a different fish needing to be fried this morning.

When my correspondents mentioned Millennials leaving the church I went to the articles on which those concerns were based. I have a suspicion that arises whenever alarmist statistics are being tossed about in Christian circles. Somewhere in this will be the hand of Barna the Christian statistical guru. And my suspicions were confirmed.

Why I suspect this and why it is a concern I expressed now nearly 6 years ago. I encourage you to click through to that post and read it (although it is long).

The point of that post is that Barna’s work has credible critics which should cause us to hesitate in referencing him. Particularly concerning is his tendency to use data to fan into flame worries on which, coincidentally, he has written a book. When Barna’s sky is falling other more careful analysts see a rather sunny, or at most a partly cloudy, day. Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion offers a calmer, more nuanced take on the data, normed over many more years and consequently more carefully nuanced.

Believe who you will. But I hope you share my concern that Christians especially should be anxious to speak the truth. We should be as cautious with what we say following “Statistics say…” as we are (or should be) when our sentence begins “The Bible says…”.

What does this have to do with community? Those who like to divide the world into Millennials vs. Gen-Xers vs. Boomers say that it is the Millennials who are longing for community and that in this the church is failing them. Whether this analysis is accurate or not I’ll leave for those more skilled in demographic research. I rather think, statistical research aside, that the demographic slice most looking for and longing for community are those humans created in the image of the Triune God. I think the church should seek to serve these people.

Fragile Community

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

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.


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.

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