Monday, July 31, 2006

Laughter Cannot Heal

I recently read an interview with Robin Williams from the April 2006, Readers Digest. The interviewer asked about doing comedy after 9/11. Finally, the interviewer asks…

Readers Digest: But in this case the laughter really did have a healing power?
Robin Williams: Healing isn’t the word. Therapeutic maybe, or cathartic. After being in extreme situations, it kind of brings you back to life.
The interview allows this exchange to stand without comment. A few years ago, I read Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins. In this book, Cousins described the anesthetic effect of laughter. Since that time, I have heard so many people describe the healing properties of laughter that it has become cliché. As a result, Williams words took me by surprise.

As I have reflected on Robin Williams’ words, I think he’s right. Laughter can be therapeutic, cathartic or even medicinal. However, laughter cannot heal. I think of John Belushi or Chris Farley, and the pain which the laughter masked. If laughter actually healed, then both of these comedic greats would still be around. Like other medicines, laughter can be used and abused. Used correctly, laughter can help facilitate true healing. Used incorrectly, it’s like every other drug used to escape the brokenness.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Newsletter: Influential Churches

Dr. John Vaughan, a researcher and consultant to churches, has recently compiled a list of the fifty most influential Protestant churches in America. I’m sorry to tell you that First Presbyterian Church of Vernon did not make the first fifty. In fact, none of the churches in Vernon did. The list is a "who’s who" of mega-churches in growing metropolitan areas. To even be considered for the list, a church had to have more than 2,000 in weekly attendance. Dr. Vaughan compiled this list based on the polling of the pastors from these same mega-churches.

I don’t want to be considered as unappreciative of the hard work that went into the list, but it seems that the results were bound to be skewed. Perhaps if our congregation had made the list, I would feel differently, but it seems that Dr. Vaughan had a particular understanding of "influential." Don’t get me wrong. There are faithful congregations up and down that list. Mega-churches have made and will continue to make a huge impact on the landscape of American Christianity. Still, I wish Dr.Vaughan had asked me what I thought were the most "influential" churches in America.

Now, granted I’m biased. So I would list our congregation at the top of the list. Then I would list Presbyterian churches in Irving, Texas, in Lexington, Indiana, and in Waynesburg, Malvern, Carrollton, Loudonville, and Berea, Ohio. I would also list a Methodist church in Diboll, Texas, a Southern Baptist church near Elaine, Arkansas, a Nazarene church outside of Houston, another Nazarene Church in Times Square, a Methodist church in Cordele, Georgia, and a couple of Roman Catholic churches in New Jersey and Ohio. This is not a complete list, but you can see that my list is varied. These congregations are large and small. They have nothing in common except one thing. They have all made a personal impact on me or the people I love.

When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). We are the most influential when we serve one another. Staying up all night with a friend in need, providing a meal, or teaching a Sunday school class that no one else will are tangible ways we influence the world for the gospel. The measurement of influence is not attendance, size or budget. Rather, real influence is faithfulness. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31). Starting small and inconsequential, its impact is greater than you can possibly imagine.

Pray for Rain

In my research for sermon on 1 Kings 18:17-39, I discovered an article from Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. The beginning of the article makes much about Israel being a land that is fed by rainwater rather than river water.
Rainfall is a symbol of divine providence. Furthermore, according to the biblical stories, in the great riverine countries a nation's sense of ownership of its land and mastery of its destiny is reinforced, leading to the development of tyrannical regimes and slavery. In land that drink rainwater, on the other hand, man constantly senses his dependence on God and for that reason such a land will sustain a regime of justice, free of subjugation.
Whether ancient Israel was a regime of justice is probably an open question. The Old Testament prophets certainly had their doubts. In the aforementioned passage, Elijah calls the people of Israel to faithfulness and repentance after worshipping the idols of Ba'al. After God embarrasses the prophets of Ba'al on Mount Carmel and the people return to faith, the long drought ends.

Still, there may be some truth to the claim. By this description of places that drink rainwater, the Texas plains must be a land that "will sustain a regime of justice, free of subjugation." Perhaps, we are. Being dependent on God, we certainly are suspicious of those who wish to usurp our freedom. Recognizing the sovereignty of God we, Texans, certainly have a transcendent understanding of justice.

Still, we are tired of our current drought. There may even be some who are willing to give up a bit of that freedom if it would bring some rain. This is one of the driest seasons on record for Wilbarger County, Texas. In the midst of a difficult drought, we've learned our lessons well. Many of us are crying, "Okay God, we've got it. We are ready to move on now."

So we pray for rain. Some may have read about officials in the city of Lubbock calling for a day of prayer and fasting. I was a little surprised to see the story highlighted on the Drudge Report. If I had to guess why Matt Drudge thought the story worthy to link was probably surprise that those quaint Red Staters pray for rain or maybe that the drought is so bad that people are praying in desparation. Either way, the coverage has had another effect. Christians and a few non-Christians from all over the country are now praying for us.

I understand that God is mysterious and beyond our control. That may give little comfort as crops fail and cattle must be sold. Still, we remember the times of blessing. We remember God's faithfulness and his promises to us. We remind each other of these things, and yes, we even remind God.

Lord, please send us rain.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Task Force Never Got Started

Barbara Wheeler asks in her recent Outlook article, "Did the Task Force Succeed?" The answer she suggests is a mix. Where Presbyterians have agreed with the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force, she counts as success. Where there has been contention or controversy, for her, success is elusive. The reasons for the lack of success, according to Wheeler, are primarily a sex-obsessed secular media and the "church lobbyists."

Admittedly, I am not fond of our new authoritative interpretation. I cannot imagine that something that causes so much confusion can further the peace, unity and purity of the church. Laying those objections aside, the PUP task force never succeeded because it never got started.

I was on the committee that formed the task force at the 2001 General Assembly. We developed its mandate, which was approved overwhelmingly by the General Assembly. Most of us were concerned with the lack of trust within the denomination, and we prayed that we had created something that was not church-as-usual. In response to the Confessing Church Movement, there was a desire to meet churches at the "grassroots." In fact, "grassroots" became one of the catchwords for that year’s Assembly. We purposely wanted to avoid a process that appeared heavy-handed. We did not want a group to make pronouncements from on high.

The moderator of the 212th General Assembly, Sygman Rhee, pushed for a commission like occurred in the 1920s, which dealt with the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. In 2001, our committee rejected the language of "commission" in favor of "task force" because we perceived that a commission could take action on behalf of the entire General Assembly. Instead we wanted an organic process that included "conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations."

The task force was "directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st Century." Many of us realized that our problems would not be solved by a report of a task force. Our problems are deeper. We have an identity crisis among Presbyterians. We are unsure who we are or what our purpose is. Our fights about ordination standards reveal deeper, more fundamental questions.

Many hoped that the task force would lead the entire denomination in the hard work of theology and spiritual discernment. The task force took another route. They gathered among themselves. They worked in isolation, often behind closed doors. Although much of the task force’s work was commendable, the people in the pews were not particularly involved. Many of us only saw the task force after the discernment process was over. A few months before the 217th General Assembly, the task force was in the presbyteries "selling" their report and policy recommendations.

Imagine someone who goes to a spiritual director needing help in discernment. The spiritual director responds, "I’ll get right to work on that." Then, the director disappears, occasionally reappearing offering updates on her progress. After a few years, the director produces a written report with some discussion questions at the end. The director may have done some discernment, but the person who needs it has gained nothing. I found it telling that when the PCUSA described the work of the task force, the mandate was changed. One bulletin insert used to introduce congregations to the task force’s final report stated, "They were asked to discern the church’s ‘Christian identity in and for the 21st Century.’"

Even if the task force achieved Christian nirvana in their closed-door meetings, the rest of us have not benefited from that process. They may have changed, but we haven’t. Does the denomination in general have a better theological background to make tough decisions? Is there now a consensus of who Jesus is? Do we even understand what the problems are that face our denomination? This hard work remains to be done. Then when individuals in the denomination actually try to engage in discernment by debating the policy recommendations or making suggestions to change them, members of the task force tell us that we are being divisive. The task force believes that its job has been completed with a report and a murky authoritative interpretation. Although some decry their efforts, I believe that the affinity groups in their imperfect way are trying to do what the task force failed to do–to lead the denomination in spiritual discernment. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Finally, I am not suggesting that the problems we face solely rest on the failures of the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force. To suggest such would make me guilty of the same failings. Unlike the rhetoric that I’ve been hearing, the task force and its recommendations are not Christ or anti-christ. We can only blame ourselves for the impasse that we’ve reached in our life together. We have looked for easy solutions, and we have allowed others to do our work for us. Let us take up the difficult tasks of prayer, worship, theology, and discernment. We have a Savior. Let’s follow him.

Friday, July 28, 2006

La Dolce Vita

All right, I am convinced. I want to be Italian. Whether true or not, the lifestyle depicted in this article reveals the worst of American and apparently British life. We over-eat, eating lousy food, alone in front of the television or computer screen. We over-work, looking at sleep with suspicion. We are like children trying to stay up later and later thinking we may miss something important. We sit more than we move probably because we are so tired. We live in isolation, sharing a house but rarely a home. I’m ready to pack my bags.

Americans are obsessive with "the pursuit of happiness." Most Americans, however, haven't spent much time concerned with the meaning of happiness. That doesn't mean that Italians have. Instead, they have received a tradition and a culture which just may be more conducive to life in community. Indeed, there are Italians which long to be American or British. They see American life as better than "la vita italiana." The grass is always greener.

Nonetheless, facing the faults of the American life, we can choose something better. I think the Church should speak to these issues. Perhaps, we can offer an alternative to the fast-paced, lonely, excessive American life. We can be something truly counter-cultural.

Do they need missionaries in Italy?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Dirty Little Secret

Okay, I admit it. I am the intellectual grandchild of Leo Strauss. You know Leo Strauss, the evil father of neo-conservatism. The person who runs the Bush administration from the grave on its quest for world domination.

In college, I studied political philosophy. I even wrote a short thesis on David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. My professor was a student of Strauss. Through that professor, I became acquainted with other heirs of Strauss--thinkers like Alan Bloom, Thomas Pangle, and Francis Fukuyama. Strauss is a dense read. I would be surprised if the hyperventilating critics actually have a clue what he thought.

Steven Smith has a nice introduction into the thought of Leo Strauss. Quickly one realizes that the bogeyman of the American left has almost no resemblance to the actual man. Primarily Strauss was concerned with the reading of good books by great thinkers. In the same vein, my professor taught me to read books with the assumption that the author knew more than me. Bringing this humility to a text allowed me to plunge deeply. I wrestled with apparent contradictions, assuming that the author was trying to teach me something.

As Smith recounts, Strauss himself wrestled with questions that few ask anymore. "Is reason or revelation the ultimate guide for life?" "Has the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns been decided in favor of modernity?" and "Are the philosophers or the poets better educators of civic life?" The diversity of thought on these questions by Strauss' students suggests that Strauss himself was not interested in promoting a rigid ideology.

The most difficult part of Strauss is his rediscovery of esoteric writing. In this way of thinking, great writers would not always come out and say what they thought. For example, we cannot assume that the words of a character in a Shakespeare play are Shakespeare's own thoughts and ideas. In fact, they may be the opposite of his own. Perhaps, the character is a foil, or perhaps the dialogue itself is what is important. In a novel, play or dialogue, this may make sense, but Strauss even suggests that prose writers may hide meanings within a text. I found such hidden meanings difficult to ferret out. Perhaps, even the hidden meaning was the product of my imagination. Listening to my professor, you would think that almost every author was a a closet atheist.

Laying that criticism aside, I owe an incredible debt to Leo Strauss and his intellectual heirs. First, I love primary texts. I much rather read an author than about an author. Second, I try to suppress my pride as a read an author. Rather than casting judgment on a text, I try to listen. This attitude was instrumental in me becoming a Christian. Dropping my arrogance, the Holy Spirit opened me to the truth of the Scriptures. Finally, I have learned that words and ideas matter. I am able to ask hard questions. Was Tertullian right that Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem? When conflict occurs in the biblical text, is there a greater meaning? In my own sermons, where is the gospel and where is my own cultural baggage? What are the idols of our age, and what can we do to avoid them?

For me, Leo Strauss' legacy is a method not an ideology.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Help vs. Solidarity

In "Jesus Nation: Sweaty Solidarity Forever," Jeff Sharlet decries the lack of a serious religious movement on the political left. He is unsatisfied with the smiling face of Jim Wallis on television providing "balance" to spokesmen of the religious right.

Do I care about the religious left? Not particularly, no more than I care about the religious right. Still, I was intrigued with at least one premise of the article. In dealing with the social ills, "help" is insufficient.

Sharlet offers a quote from black theologian, James Cone: "authentic love is not 'help'--not giving Christmas baskets--but working for political, social, and economic justice, which always means a redistribution of power. It is a kind of power which enables [the oppressed] to fight their own battles and thus keep their dignity."

I haven't been a fan of Cone since I discovered I fit his description of a "Christo-fascist"--someone who places Jesus Christ at the center of faith. (On the other hand, I have wore the label as a badge of honor. It certainly gets the attention of others.) Moreover, I am deeply suspicious of calls for "redistribution of power." Political leftists have a poor track record. Nonetheless, there is a deeper truth here at which Cone hints. The kingdom of God is more than charity. The kingdom of God is about transformed lives.

Every person who comes into my church seeking assistance needs more than a few bucks. Perhaps, the deeper problems are addiction, destructive relationships or simply poor money management. I tell each one that they need the support of a God and a community that loves them. Unlike Cone, I think there is a place for "Christmas baskets." Still, faithfulness demands that we walk with those in need. More than a hand-out, they need Jesus Christ and his Church. In the words of the article, they need "solidarity" not "help."

I think this lesson taken from a radical like Cone, needs to reverberate in our denomination, locally and nationally. The PCUSA has a ton of opinions on social issues. Most of those opinions are expressed by lobbying the government to change laws and policies. Unfortunately, government policies are unable to provide the "solidarity" that the poor desparately need. Rather than making ourselves feel good through lobbying or throwing money, we need to come alongside the poor and the oppressed.

A few years ago, the PCUSA boycotted Taco Bell. We paid someone half a salary to help organize picket lines. We were concerned about migrant tomato pickers. We could have sent missionaries, lawyers, and teachers to the migrant workers. We could have helped them break the cycles of poverty or navigate the difficulties of immigration law. Instead we settled for one cent higher price per bushel of tomatoes. With inflation, that benefit will soon disappear, but the poverty will remain. "Help" is always easier than "solidarity."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pastoral Letter: The Need for Discernment

Recently our congregation has begun a process of discernment. We are asking some tough questions about the direction of our congregration. More importantly we are listening to God to give us direction. Here is a pastoral letter to my congregation about the discernment process.

Dear Friends,
Q. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
A. What? Change?

Whether warranted or not, Presbyterians have a bad reputation about adapting to change. Let me be the first to say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the past few generations, we have seen the world change at a dizzying pace. We should be thankful for many of those changes, but we also should recognize that not every change is good. The church’s role is not to change for change’s sake, but rather we are called to respond in new ways to new situations with the same Jesus Christ. Reaching out to the world with the gospel means translating it into the language and culture of our place and time. At the same time, we use the gospel to critique, to criticize, and to expose the idols of our age.

Our congregation faces a much different world than the one faced by Vernon Presbyterians in 1888 or even in 1988. After years of cultural primacy, Christianity is no longer the dominate force in Western society. As our society becomes more cosmopolitan, it becomes the locus for clashes between various religious traditions and even no religious tradition. For many, truth has become relative, completely dependent on particular context. At the same time, religion has become privatized, a hobby. Even the increasingly large Christian subculture in America looks and acts often like their non-Christian neighbors. For example, high divorce rates, sexual immorality, materialism and biblical illiteracy plague the Church as well as society as a whole. In our modern world, many feel more isolated, more hurried, and less grounded. After years on foreign shores, many missionaries have returned home and acknowledge that the United States is now a mission field.

In the past, the Church has acted like a chaplain to the greater culture. The Church accepted the roles and limits assigned to it. She merely addressed the religious needs of the community. As the culture has changed, the Church must now act as a missionary. Rather than a dispenser of religious goods, she must herald the kingdom of God, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign to a skeptical world.

Our temptation in this time of transition is great. There are plenty who peddle solutions for what ails the Church. Fads and gimmicks abound. Instead of adopting a few quick-fixes, we need to listen intentionally to God. Our congregation has begun a season of discernment. We want to hear God’s call, and we want to respond in faith. In the coming months, we ask for your prayers and participation. We hope that this season will be a time of renewal and revival for our congregation and for you.

Grace & Peace,

Natural Backlash?

Concerning the recent actions of the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, I am afraid that only a relative few will become hot and bothered unless the standards actually change. Presbyterians have learned how to distance themselves from the national denomination--Angela Davis, Re-imagining, the Layman-declared "apostate" General Assembly, Israeli divestment, etc. Our congregations have stuck with the denomination through all of this. A confusing and murky Authoritative Interpretation which keeps the standards in place is unlikely tomotivate us to clean house.

Take a cue from our friends in the Episcopal Church. Conservatives have been ticked with the direction of the church for a while. The American hierarchy have been quietly electing priests and even bishops who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ or are involved in unrepentant sin. The folks in the pews complained but were satisfied that their congregation was different. When the denomination ordains an openly practicing unrepentant adulterer as a bishop, essentially redefining sin, the folks in the pews couldn't ignore it. An inevitable split is on the way.

It has been my experience that the folks in our pews can't stand defiance, but they can tolerate hypocrisy. Burn a little incense at G-6.0106b but then live your life any way you want. For this reason the PUP Task Force's AI was perfect. It is hypocrisy, plain and simple.

I raise these issues because I don't think that there is a natural backlash. Yes, plenty of us are mad, and we can fill a bunch of auditoriums easily. However, we can't just wave the flag and expect the church to rally. As pastors, we have a difficult job of teaching and leading. The church is in need of conversion, repentance, and discipleship. I don't expect the hard work to end until my Savior returns.

General Assembly Fallout

I guess that I’ve been pretty quiet about the direction of the Presbyterian Church USA. I was in Birmingham for part of the 217th General Assembly, and I’ve been carefully watching events unfold. My silence on-line has not been matched by silence in my congregation. I have made presentations to the session and to interested parties before and after the assembly.

The General Assembly brought a number of interesting results. We declared that terrorism and suicide bombing are crimes against humanity. (Osama Bin Laden is quaking in his boots now that the Presbyterians have weighed in.) We declared that babies in the womb which are viable should be allowed to live. We backed away from divestment in Israel. We "received" a deeply flawed report on the Trinity as if we received a UPS package for the next door neighbor. (In other words, it carries no weight.) We cut forty missionaries. We even directed the Stated Clerk to lobby the president on the benefits of medical marijuana.

However, all these actions seem to pale in comparison to the issue of sexuality. In 2001, the General Assembly created a task force to lead the denomination in spiritual discernment. Instead, the group met together, discussed, wrote papers, and made policy recommendations. One policy change is the infamous Recommendation 5. Some claim that this recommendation merely affirms traditional Presbyterian polity. The denomination sets national standards, and they are applied at the local levels. Others see this recommendation as allowing local authorities the option to ordain openly unrepentant adulterers. The confusion is great, and every word that comes out of the Stated Clerk’s office creates more of it. The national standards have not changed, we are told again and again, yet no one knows what that means any more. "John Calvin, I’d like you to meet Jacques Derrida."

Now what? There are several groups which are meeting this summer to wrestle with the new situation. Some are talking schism and splits. Others are talking about living faithfully within the new structure. I am willing to be patient.

I used to think that the denomination would split within my lifetime. I don’t think so anymore. Unless the denomination changes dramatically, it will go out with a whimper. Local churches will join together in various associations and partnerships. Some will be sponsored by denominational structures. Others will not. Para-church organizations will continue to multiply. Healthier ministries will prosper. Others will wither on the vine. The 1950s denominational structure built on the models of General Motors or IBM will disappear. Granted the new world looks much messier, but personally, I would shed few tears. I care more about the loss of reformed theology and tradition, but the denomination has already done little to prevent that from happening. Ultimately, I am concerned about our faithfulness to God. By God’s grace, I pledge to be faithful in the PCUSA and whatever may come after.