Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Merry Christmas?

An Inkling
My goodness – life in America can be complicated!  With no religion established, and every religion (including atheism) having freedom of expression, we sure can get into some snarls.  This month’s case in point:  how we wish each other well in December.
Even “Merry Christmas” has become controversial.  Once we just said it, and didn’t think twice about it.  But then people began to ask, “Isn’t that favoring Christianity’s celebration over other celebrations?  Maybe we’d better be generic, just to be even-handed.”  Thus the mandates to the employees of many stores, schools, and municipalities to wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and to declare days off to be “Winter break” instead of “Christmas break.” 
Even presuming the best of motives in such directives (making room for everyone), something is lost in generic language.  “Merry Christmas” has a warmth that “Happy Holidays” simply does not.
The controversy has heated up in recent years, with conservative political and/or religious voices saying this is secularism gone too far.  The more strident voices have called on Christians to boycott stores that wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and have cited all of this as evidence of the collapse of our national character, the coming persecution of Christians, etc.
Like I said, life in America can be complicated.  And in an already-too-long blog I’m not going to try to resolve all of the issues involved in expressing our Christian identity in a land where that is no longer assumed.  Courts will continue to split hairs, political forces will continue using such issues to rally support, and churches will continue searching for winsome ways to present our faith in public settings.
Let me offer a few suggestions for this latter pursuit during December:
§       Get over your defensiveness.  It’s okay to be a Christian in America – if not with your secular neighbor, at least with God.  And we simply cannot serve Christ well with chips on our shoulders.
§       Offer “Merry Christmas” as what it is: a prayer of blessing.  Listen to the words!  It’s not a litmus test for their response, nor is it a way to make a point.  Offer it for what it is:  a genuine Christian well-wishing.  There is a time and place for making a point, but co-opting the language of prayer and blessing is not the way to do it.
§       If you’re speaking to people you know to be of another religion, try to tailor your wish to them.  As followers of Jesus we can be kind and other-focused, something that is lost entirely when we’re trying to prove something.  Tell your Jewish friends, “Happy Hanukah.”  For other religions, it may not be so simple.  So ask them what sort of greetings they offer each other during December.  And conclude with “I hope you enjoy your ____ as much as we enjoy celebrating Jesus at Christmas.”
§       And if someone takes offense even when you don’t mean to give it, apologize.  “I’m sorry to offend.  I’m just excited about Christmas, and I wish you well.”  Hopefully they can receive it in the spirit you offer it.  And if not, know that it’s not about you.  The offense is toward Christ.  Don’t take it for yourself.  It doesn’t belong to you.
May God give us the grace simply to honor our Savior in a complicated land!  And my prayer for you is…
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lord of Little and Lots

An Inkling
Friday night Sarah and I had the privilege of celebrating our anniversary with a night at the Jefferson Hotel, thanks to the kindness of one of the small groups here who knew that this was our 35th Anniversary.  Actually, each day of a marriage is a gift, but the milestones provide an occasion for celebration.
The setting for this celebration was especially fun for us, as we had never stayed in a five star hotel.  If you’ve been to the Jefferson, then you know its marble-columned lobby and sweeping staircase.  We roamed around, taking in all of the art and lavish Christmas decorations.  We worked out in the fancy exercise room.  Friday night’s crab cake dinner was sumptuous, as was the room service breakfast the next morning.  Our suite had three rooms, three TVs, a luxurious bed, a huge shower, and a Jacuzzi.  If I weren’t already corrupt, that would have done it! 
We got home mid-day Saturday, still aglow from our extravagant celebration.  A few hours later we were up at the church helping to welcome the homeless women who are staying with us this week through the Caritas Ministry.  Thirty-five cots fill our Patterson Hall.  The women share two bathrooms, and ride in our carpool over to the Y for showers.  Our team feeds them well, and seeks to bless them with everything from haircuts to medical care to prayer.  We do all we can to make the week a good one for our guests.  Even so, thirty-five cots in a big room is not exactly the Jefferson.
It was the contrast between the two in the same day that made me think of Paul’s word to the Philippians: I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty (Phil. 4:11b-12a).  In a culture that presses us to be anything but content (lest this year’s “shopping season” not top last year’s!), it is no small thing to be content.
Simplicity is a discipline that I’ve valued for some years, so I’ve found it a challenge to enjoy the abundance that comes with Jefferson-like gifts without feeling awkward.  For others the growing edge faces the other way.  It’s that growing edge of contentment with a little or a lot which Paul described, one of the Lord’s many ongoing projects in our lives.  The Savior who could both feast and fast to God’s glory wants to free us to do the same.  May his kind of contentment mark your Advent and Christmas seasons.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks and the Light

An Inkling
What if people knew what you really thought?  What if WikiLeaks got hold of all the “cables” that flit through the channels of your mind and published them on the internet?  What if they posted what you really believe about God, your spouse, your in-laws, your boss, your neighbors, and the folks at church?  What would happen?
I guess we’d have a smaller version of what we’re seeing play out internationally with the WikiLeaks of U.S. diplomatic cables.  Actually, when you stop to think about it, there are no huge surprises.  We’ve long since known that we were suspicious of them, and they were suspicious of us.  We already knew that we see them as unpredictable goofballs, and that our making nice with them was a calculated means of making order in a chaotic world.  What’s surprising?  Only that we’ve been shown as unpredictable goofballs too.  And honestly that’s no surprise either.
T.M.I. (too much information) applies not only to bodily functions, but also to relationships.  Otherwise chaos mounts ever higher.
The only way full disclosure can finally bring good is when it happens in the company of the One who has no darkness within.  So he is described in 1 John.  As the WikiLeaks story has unfolded, I’ve been pondering on 1 John 1:5-10.  I commend it to your own reflection.
The One who is light welcomes us into the light ourselves.  That would be terrifying, except for this assurance:  if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (v. 7).  So rather than him withdrawing in horror at the exposure of what we’re really like, he takes all of our unseemliness upon himself, and takes it to the cross.  Wow!  Thus we really can live in the light with each other.  How’s that for good news?
Pray for Mr. WikiLeaks.  He thinks exposure is the same thing as living in the light.  Not so.  In hell everything is exposed, and yet there is still no light.  That takes the love of the One who cleanses us from the darkness within.
Living in his light,

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Next Steps in an Acquired Skill

An Inkling
Have you ever seen a child who is naturally grateful?  I haven’t.  Gratitude is something we learn – and not just once. 
Mom says to Junior, “What do you tell Daddy for this new ball?”  And Junior stares blankly.  “Say, ‘Thank you, Daddy.’”  So he echoes, “Thank you, Daddy.”  It takes a while, but usually it becomes more than parroting.  Most of us have acquired the happy habit of saying “Thank you” when someone does something nice, and usually we mean it.
But I’m not sure we go much further.  Ask a child what she’s grateful for, and she’ll typically answer, “Mommy, Daddy, Max (the dog), and my new dolly.”  A child’s emerging gratitude is focused on special people, critters, and toys.  Ask an adult what she’s grateful for, and she’ll probably include more relationships and fewer “toys.”  That’s a good step, but there’s more.
The more comes as we bring the whole of life, including the hard parts, into view as the starting place for gratitude.  The One to whom we direct our thanks truly is more than a celestial Santa Claus, lavishing us with gifts.  We know that.  And yet stunted gratitude reveals a heart that is not much beyond that vision of God.
If the One we thank is indeed guiding the whole of our lives, directing a story line that is joyful beyond our imagining, unfolding the full import of our salvation in Jesus, and turning even the lousy parts of our stories toward blessing, then our gratitude needs to move beyond a bullet point list of obvious gifts. 
It was that broader, deeper gratitude in the Pilgrims’ hearts that launched our Thanksgiving tradition.  They didn’t have much in the way of tangible gifts, especially compared to us.  But they had an eye for the Lord at work in the whole of their lives, and thus their gratitude grew.
May the Giver of all good things also give us eyes to see his hand at work in all things.  Growth in gratitude follows.  And this week is a great time to give that growing gratitude new voice.
With gratitude for you,

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Non-Random Acts of Kindness

An Inkling
“Uh oh.”  That’s the first thought that comes to mind when I arrive at my office in the morning and find the red message light blinking on my phone.  A need of sufficient urgency prompted an overnight call – is someone in the hospital?  Does someone have a family emergency?  Or is this a message about some fault in the church program or schedule or pastor (pick one or more!)?  Such are my “Uh oh” thoughts as I punch the message button and listen.
But this morning the message was from a friend with a passion for encouragement.  He has found a creative way to encourage by calling long before anyone is in the office, and leaving a message with a kind word, a scripture, and an assurance of prayer support.  Such a simple thing, but what a big lift!
My friend has a special zeal for encouraging pastors, and I’m just one of several that he blesses with these out of the blue encouragements.  But obviously it need not just be pastors.  Everyone benefits from a kind word.
Who might benefit from a word of encouragement from you?  And how can you engage your creativity to make it a happy surprise?  The surprise multiplies the effect – kind of like giving flowers on a random day.  In contrast to the “Practice Acts of Random Kindness” bumper stickers, for those of us who serve Jesus, it’s anything but random.  It’s who we are in him. 
You’ve got a message…

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

With an Eye for Blazes

An Inkling
Every two or three months I take an afternoon apart for what I call a “silent retreat.”  I go somewhere quiet, usually an isolated section of a park, and hang out with the Lord for an afternoon.  I’ve discovered that some kinds of interactions can happen with the Lord in a morning prayer time, but other kinds need more time.  Thus the silent retreat.
Typically I take my journal, a Bible, and some water.  I hike, sit and ponder, and take time to notice what’s around me.  After about an hour the busyness in my head slows, and I can focus and listen better.  That’s one big advantage over my morning prayer time.  And the Lord always has some means of speaking to me, making use of whatever scenes I’ve encountered.  Sometimes he tells me a lot, and sometimes just a little.  And I almost always have a lot to tell him – if not in substance, at least in length, for my journal grows by a couple of pages or more. 
I have discovered two consistent realities about these times.  First it’s always hard to find the time.  Something has to be sacrificed in order to get apart with the Lord.  (Actually, I think he has some intention in this.)  And secondly, I am always grateful when I’ve made the time.  He always has some surprising treasure in store.
Usually it’s not earth shaking, just edifying, and timely.  For example, two weeks ago I was at Montreat for several days of study leave.  I decided to use one of the afternoons for a silent retreat.  I hiked the Rainbow Trail, up to Lookout Point, and back down.  The leaves were at their peak, so it was a visual feast – blazing reds, oranges, and yellows.
I had not taken this trail before, but had a general idea of where it led.  A number of other trails intersected it, so I had to make a lot of “fork in the road” decisions.  The trail narrowed at points, but was always visible if I paid attention.  Even so, I was grateful for the trail blazes that marked the way every quarter mile or so.  Even though I could see the trail, I found the blazes reassuring.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between that hike and the walk of faith – the attentiveness needed to stay on the path, forks that force decisions, and the gift of timely trail blazes.  I wrote a good bit in reflection on both what I was seeing and what God was showing me.
How do you get apart to be with the Lord?  There are lots of ways to do it, and it’s more than worth the effort.  And whether you’re taking your retreat via hiking or not, there will be blazes.  The Trail Master assures it.
Happy Trails!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Until We Meet Again...

An Inkling
Life’s course forces us at points to part from those dear to us, which means it’s well to learn to hold lightly the people we love.  Often this is the pattern:
§       The challenge comes simply at first, as we send our little ones off to school for the first time. 
§       Then we discover that our busy teens actually prefer other company to their parents! 
§       Soon enough we’re sending our almost adult children off to the military or to college. 
§       Then we become extended family to our “child,” who now has an immediate family of his or her own. 
§       That often comes with a move across the country or even across the globe. 
§       This series of partings continues until, at the other end of life, we let go of everyone at once as the Lord welcomes us to himself.
I say we’re “forced” into such partings.  We often try to thwart them, but that never seems to work out very well.
I was reminded of this last week when Sarah and I returned to First Presbyterian Church in Douglasville, Georgia, for their 50th Anniversary celebration.  It was fun to see the people with whom our hearts had been closely knit for ten years.  When the Lord directed us to St. Giles in 2007, that of necessity meant letting go of the particular ways we had held those good folks through our time there.
It was a joy to see that the ones I had let go of were still being held in the hand of the One who has the capacity to hold us securely through the whole course of life.  So Jesus promised:  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me… No one will snatch them out of my hand.  (John 10:27-28)  And he can bring it off!  No turn in our lives can thwart him in holding us securely through the whole course of life.
As much as I love the Douglasville saints, I don’t have what it takes to hold them finally.  And though it is harder to acknowledge, the same is true of those knit most deeply into my heart – my own wife and daughters.  Even with them I must hold loosely, which is more do-able knowing that the same One who holds me securely holds them.
Reunions give us a taste of the time to come, when being in the Lord’s grip will mean that we’re together in that grip, never again to part.  We’ll anticipate that grand reunion this coming Sunday as we celebrate All Saints Sunday.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How We Use Our Treasure

An Inkling
Anyone who has ever tried to line up stewardship speakers knows how hard it is to find someone who believes she or he has something worthwhile to say about stewardship.  So this year we’re conducting an experiment:  I’m doing some “man on the street” interviews (actually, interviews of anyone who drops by my office!), and I’m asking them to reflect on what they have learned along the way about stewardship.  I’ve found that what people say off the tops of their heads often reflects what’s in the bottom of their hearts.  And as you’ll see, most folks know more about stewardship than they give themselves credit for.
This is the video we showed in worship this week for the Stewardship of Treasure.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How We Use Our Talents

An Inkling
Anyone who has ever tried to line up stewardship speakers knows how hard it is to find someone who believes she or he has something worthwhile to say about stewardship.  So this year we’re conducting an experiment:  I’m doing some “man on the street” interviews (actually, interviews of anyone who drops by my office!), and I’m asking them to reflect on what they have learned along the way about stewardship.  I’ve found that what people say off the tops of their heads often reflects what’s in the bottom of their hearts.  And as you’ll see, most folks know more about stewardship than they give themselves credit for.
This is the video we showed in worship this week for the Stewardship of Talents.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How We Use Our Time

An Inkling
Anyone who has ever tried to line up stewardship speakers knows how hard it is to find someone who believes she or he has something worthwhile to say about stewardship.  So this year we’re conducting an experiment:  I’m doing some “man on the street” interviews (actually, interviews of anyone who drops by my office!), and I’m asking them to reflect on what they have learned along the way about stewardship.  I’ve found that what people say off the tops of their heads often reflects what’s in the bottom of their hearts.  And as you’ll see, most folks know more about stewardship than they give themselves credit for.
This is the video we showed in worship this week for Stewardship of Time.

Monday, September 27, 2010


An Inkling
Ellen Andrusia reported a fun conversation with her five year old grand-daughter, Ellie, who visited our worship service with her grandmother, and then asked, “Why do people raise their hands in your church?”  Ellen answered, “They are worshiping the Lord.”  To which Ellie replied, “That also means touchdown!”
Isn’t it funny how what we’ve been exposed to shapes our perceptions?  Football as a grid for understanding worship – how American is that?!  And it’s not just children who bring a grid with them to worship.  We all bring our interpretive frameworks. 
I was reminded of this Sunday, when we had a lot of guests with us for Rowan Keyser’s baptism.  Some of them, coming from more reserved traditions, were surprised by how many “touchdowns” we score here at St. Giles!  And there were some other stadium trappings – clapping, and a few shouts – that caught their attention. 
Our “Contemporary” service tends to be more expressive than our “Traditional” service.  However, as Presbyterian services typically go, our Traditional service is also more expressive than people expect.  That service scores some touchdowns too!  Of course, if our guests come from a Pentecostal church, they’ll find even our Contemporary service to be pretty buttoned down.  We all have our grids.
So which is the right way to worship – expressive or reflective, standard Presbyterian or St. Giles or Pentecostal?  Wrong question.  For the One we worship delights in the variety of expression.  And we all do well to learn from each other, so that we might make his praise all the more glorious.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why a Woman?

An Inkling
In this lull time between having called Sarah Marsh to be our new Associate Pastor, and her arrival here (mid-October), I thought I’d offer a brief reflection on women ministers.  Even though St. Giles has not called its own woman pastor before, for most of us women ministers are no longer a novelty.  The Presbyterian Church ordained its first woman elder 80 years ago, and its first woman minister 54 years ago.  Yet what seems simply right to us now did not seem so with our forebears, nor does it with many of our friends in other churches.  They cite various Pauline statements about women and ask, “How can you do that and take the Bible seriously?”  Good question.
Our church changed its mind not by setting the Bible aside, but by reading it more carefully.  Having seen women effectively “eld” before they could be “Elders” and “pastor” before they could be “Pastors,” the church re-read the scriptures with a renewed determination to understand God’s plan for women’s roles.
Whole books have been written about the interpretive quandaries caused by seemingly contradictory passages.  I can’t deal with all of that in a blog.  But I will simply lift up some passages that helped the church recognize women’s broad roles.  Genesis 1-3 shows how God created men and women equally in his image, and that it was sin, not God’s design, that put men and women at odds.  Jesus chose women as the first heralds of the best news ever:  his resurrection.  So they were apostles to the apostles!  Paul summed up the impact of Christ on human divisions:  There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
By putting such passages alongside restrictive passages, the church saw that the overall trajectory of the Bible’s teaching supports equal roles for women and men, even while recognizing the God-given distinctives of the genders.  In that light, the restrictive passages are seen as directions for particular places where women had misused their new God-given freedoms.
I’m glad the church took a second look, for we are now richly blessed by the gifts God brings through women elders and ministers.  With Sarah’s arrival, we’ll witness the fruit of that second look in a new way in our own midst!  Seeing with our own eyes helps, but we must also be clear from the Bible itself why we believe women should take these roles.  Such clarity brings encouragement to our women, who must still sort out the claims of some churches that women don’t belong in such roles. 
Let’s be ready to launch Sarah well in her ministry here.  And you might find one of our women elders and speak a word of encouragement to her too!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Landscape of the Soul

An Inkling
One of the delightful passages in The Shack describes Mac (the main character) working in a garden with Sarayu (the Holy Spirit’s name in this fantasy of divine encounter).  As they work the garden, removing briars, digging roots, planting flowers, etc, they talk about many things, including the gardening work itself.  But it’s only at the end of their gardening work that Sarayu reveals that the garden they were working is really Mac’s soul – still with much work needed, but already showing an emerging beauty.
I was reminded of this when I was visiting with Jonathan Keyser about his beloved hobby, landscaping.  Thankfully he has plied his passion with some beds around the church.  You can see the attached before and after pictures of the back entrance.  How’s that for an amazing transformation?!  Not overnight, but over time, and with a lot of work on his part, Jonathan’s vision of beautiful possibilities has taken root and grown.
On several occasions I’ve talked with Jonathan about what could be done with a particular patch of ground.  I have no landscaper’s eye, and so I imagine some grass and a few flowers, at best.  But Jonathan sees possibilities beyond my imagining – grand visions of variety and beauty, tailored to grow in a particular place.  As he describes it, his eyes light up with excitement, for he’s already seeing a beauty that’s not yet grown to be. 
I have to believe that the Holy Spirit’s eyes light up as well when he surveys the gardens of our souls.  Weeds and briars don’t stifle his wild and wonderful imaginings for us.  With an ever-ready supply of water, and perfect timing for planting and pruning, he beautifies us.  I’ve seen some of his beautiful vision taking form in you.  Won’t it be fun to see his dream come to full realization?!  And in the meantime, we get to be his partners in the gardening.  Good company, and a meaningful task – what a deal!
Here’s to Jonathan,

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Life Weavers

An Inkling
My art education has been remedial.  I had little instruction as a youngster, and thus I am trying to fill in those gaps as an adult.  One art genre that has fascinated me is the tapestry.  Thousands of threads are woven to tell a story.  They may show a single scene, like Raphael’s picture of the miraculous catch of fish.  Or they may tell a longer story.  For example, the Prestopans Tapestry takes 104 meters to tell the story of the 1745 Battle of Prestopans!
In a tapestry, no one thread tells the tale.  But all the threads together can portray an elaborate scene, or recount a whole history.
You are a tapestry artist.  All but a few of us shy away from the title “artist,” but it’s true.  You are continually weaving threads that make up the tapestry of your life.  Particular threads may not seem of much import, say for example the way you do your meals, converse on the phone, or use your time in the evening.  But they become part of the larger portrayal of something quite grand – your life.  Everything gets woven in, both your best and worst.  And thankfully, God weaves his gracious and glorious threads into our tapestries too. 
It’s well to step back sometimes and ask, “What tale is my tapestry telling?”  I was put to thinking about this most recently when Sarah broke her ankle a week ago at the church picnic.  We heard a couple of days later that three little boys, Mikey, Sam, and James, had gone into one of the Sunday School rooms and prayed for her while we awaited the ambulance.  No one told them to.  They just did it.  How did they know to do that?
At this point in their lives, their tapestries are still very much interwoven with those of their parents.  Prayer must be woven right into the scenes of their everyday family life.  Thus it seemed natural to the boys to pray in an emergency.  Now, even at a young age, they are weaving such threads into their own tapestries – to the glory of God!
How’s that for a masterpiece?!

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Hint of Good Things to Come...

An Inkling
This week’s offering is an attached You Tube video that we used to introduce our soon-to-be Associate Pastor, Sarah Marsh, to everyone at Sunday’s congregational meeting. The Search Team shared their enthusiasm for Sarah, but the congregation also got a feel for Sarah through having her speak for herself.
We thank God for his guidance through this search! If it’s like most things with God, he’s given us a hint of the good things he has in store – but only a hint.
Heeeere’s Sarah…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The God of Heaven and Mirth

An Inkling
Last weekend Sarah and I took in “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage,” a marriage conference led by Mark Gungor.  It’s aptly named.  I’m one of those who cries when I laugh hard, and by the time we left I needed to wring out my handkerchief.
Mark has a marvelous comic gift, and of course marriage has no shortage of funny subjects, nor of hard truths that need to be spoken.  So Mark uses humor like Mary Poppins’ “spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down.” 
But I think it’s more than that.  There’s something about truth itself that sounds of mirth.  That’s because the One who gives truth – indeed, who is the truth – is also mirth-full.  And we are made in his mirthful image!
Sadly, along with every other facet of God’s image in us, our mirth has been distorted by sin.  And so the heavenly laughter of delight gets twisted into a demeaning laughter of scorn.  Witness much of the humor in our culture, which derides and puts others down, pulling us all down in the process.  The humor of hell will be such a downer – forever.  But God’s kind of humor, even if the occasion is our own foibles and foolishness, lifts us up. 
Which reminds me again of Mary Poppins.  Do you remember Uncle Albert’s song, “I Love to Laugh”?  (Here’s the link -  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gx7lz5X2vKk )  The more they laugh, the higher they float, which only increases the laughter.  Such will be the mirth of heaven, as we are all lifted up in the Lord’s joy.
Thanks be to God, that in Jesus Christ he redeems even our mirth!
Ha, ha, ha-lelujah!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Marriage Matters

An Inkling
Marriage was much on the mind last week as our extended family vacationed together at the lake.  One evening we celebrated three August anniversaries with a cake.  Numerous conversations anticipated Dorothy and Brandon’s October wedding, as I helped plan their service, and Sarah helped plan reception details, etc.  Then over the weekend my cousin, Tracey, remarried.  Rob is a gift to her in this season of life, and I know she is a gift to him.  So in a single week our family saw marriage anticipated, commenced anew, and celebrated.
We also saw marriage debated every time we turned on the news.  Our culture is entangled in a complex debate about the nature of marriage, using only the language of constitutional guarantees and individual rights.  Good luck with that! 
Marriage, as a gift of God, cannot be understood with legal paradigms alone.  We Christians have the challenge of adding our scripturally informed perspective to the cultural conversation – no simple undertaking in a nation that favors no one faith.
If we’re to gain a hearing, we must speak the truth in love.  It’s the love that wins a hearing for the truth.  We must also speak with humility.  It’s not as if we Christians either fully understand or perfectly practice marriage ourselves.  Witness the many broken marriages in the church.  And we must speak with grace, the very grace which gives promise to our marriages.
Might God use us to re-establish a biblically based understanding of marriage in our land?  I hope and pray so.  And in the meantime we can seek to live such marriages in our homes – to his glory and our joy.
Here’s to my bride!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sanity on Display

An Inkling
Sanity landed in the church house this week.  It’s down the hall from my office.  Actually, it doesn’t look like sanity – it’s noisy, chaotic, and fun.  It’s Vacation Bible School.
In contrast my office looks sane.  It’s certainly purposive.  The books are organized by category, with indexing that helps with sermons.  I have a calendar, a to do list, and a computer connected to a world of information.  In the quiet of my office, I can crank out the work.  Not so down the hall – at least not the office kind of work.
Jesus said, “Unless you come as a child, you’ll never enter the Kingdom.”  He spoke that word to adults who were purposive, who accomplished things.  Organizing life to accomplish worthy goals is a good thing.  But apparently, when it comes to entering the Kingdom, it’s not the key. 
Not everyone down the hall is a child.  There are a good many adults and teens serving in various roles.  For some tasks at church, it’s hard to get enough volunteers.  Not so VBS – plenty show up to help.  And these are people with organized lives, who accomplish things in their own realms.
What’s the draw?  I think it’s the different kind of sanity, on display as our children encounter Jesus.  Their simple responsiveness to his love and life displays the sanity of the Kingdom in ways that our ordered lives cannot.  It’s refreshing.  It breathes life back into the ordered patterns of adult living.  And it cannot be manufactured, no matter how well organized and purposive one is.  Kingdom life comes only as a gift.
Thanks, kids!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Real Business, a la Robert's Rules

An Inkling
“Madam Moderator, I move Jesus.  And if I get a second, I’d like to speak to it.”
“You've heard the motion.  Now it is time for debate.  The maker of the motion has the privilege of speaking first.”
“Madam Moderator, members of the assembly:  it is my deepest hope that you will adopt this motion.  Heaven knows we’ve got problems:  sin and sickness, poverty and hunger, war and death.  Each generation has fancied itself the one to solve these problems.  Politicians, kings, and scientists have led some amazing efforts, and at times the prospects have looked promising.  But even our best efforts of have proven to be transient in effect.  We cannot save ourselves.  Thus we need one who can break the power of sin and death, and who can usher in a new era of peace and wholeness.  There is but one who can do it:  Jesus.  Thus I urge you, for your own sake, and for the sake of the whole world, to vote for this motion.”
“Are there others who would like to speak to this motion?”
“Madam Moderator, I would like to offer a substitute motion.”
“Madam, substitute motions are usually in order, but in this case it is out of order because there is no adequate sub­stitute for the original motion.”
“Madam Moderator, I would like to offer an amendment to the motion.”
“Sir, amendments are usually in order, but in this case it is out of order because no amendment can improve upon the original motion.”
“Madam Moderator, I move that we table the motion until a more advantageous time to decide.”
“Sir, a motion to table is usually in order, but in this case it is out of order because you have no guarantee that you will have another opportunity to decide.  Members of the assembly:  are you ready to vote?  All in favor of Jesus say ‘Aye!’”
Cast your vote now,

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Perspective Via Prayer Request

An Inkling
God is never without the means to lend perspective. 
I was sitting here pondering on our larger church, and thinking about how to follow up on my last post, when into my in box popped a prayer request from a missionary doctor friend who lives in a Muslim nation.  He faithfully sends these prayers each week, requesting that we join him in prayer.  Typically they arrive Tuesday morning, and each time they provide an opportunity for me to recalculate just how “huge” my worry du jour really is.
Here’s this week’s prayer request, with place identifiers removed:
God of mercy, who forgets not the poor and oppressed, we pray for Nupur, a 14-year-old tenth-grader who lives with her family of six in a one-room slum dwelling on the _____ side of _____.  She dreams of attending college.  Her father, an unemployed drug addict, beats her mother to demand the $2 a day she earns unloading sand from boats on the _____ River.  Lord, with your mighty hand break the bonds of poverty and oppression that grip Nupur's family, ease the pain she has felt watching her mother be beaten, and help her realize her dream of higher education.  We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us that in faith all things are possible.  Amen.
Hmmm.  And I was worrying about what will become of our denomination as an institution…  Thanks be to God for his regular reminders about what matters.
Which is not to say that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) doesn’t matter.  For one thing, that’s the part of God’s larger church that supports my friend in his service.  If the church unravels, lots of important missions will get rocked.
But the basic issues in contention, sexual ethics and the uniqueness of salvation in Jesus Christ, matter for another reason too:  they impact the well-being and witness of Christians in such lands.  Many Muslims never give the gospel a chance because they associate it with the sexual chaos of western societies, which they see as Christian lands.  We would protest that our faith can’t be judged by our nation, but that is their perception.  And they are very clear that if the Koran is right about the divine, then we are not.  Historic and global Christianity would rightly want to add, “and vice versa.”  So for the gospel even to get a hearing, and then for us to have some clarity in that conversation, these basic issues matter – a lot.
But here’s what matters most:  these ongoing contentions not only threaten the institutional viability of our denomination, they threaten the possibility that we might have the privilege of bringing the best of all good news to Nupur.  So I continue to pray for our sick ol’ mother church.
And I do so with gratitude to God for the perspective he provides on what is most important – Nupur, and millions like her.
Pray for Nupur,

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Essentials, Non-essentials, and Charity Amiss

An Inkling
I’m still processing our church’s General Assembly last week.  I wrote twice from the midst of the Assembly, and now I write in reflection.  Distance is beginning to lend perspective.
It’s a well-known maxim:  In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.  I’ve seen it attributed both to St. Augustine and John Wesley.  Whoever coined it, many have found it a wise word for how to make life work in the church.
I wish it were true of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  At points in our history it has been.  But for now here is what we’re trying to make work:  In essentials, liberty; in non-essentials, unity; and in all things (except church property), charity.
Let’s start with non-essentials.  General Assembly wasn’t all business.  There were also plenty of occasions to talk shop with other pastors and elders.  We have so much in common in education and ethos.  We face many of the same organizational challenges in our congregations and presbyteries, and we try many of the same innovations.  I had several instructive and satisfying conversations about such non-essentials with people who are opponents on our most contended issues.  Camaraderie came easily on non-essentials.  It almost felt like unity.
Then there are the essentials.  We are clearly on divergent paths.  I say “clearly,” but not all would agree.  Some say there is room for liberty here, and that we can disagree and still walk together.  The matters about which we primarily contend are sexual ethics and the uniqueness of salvation in Christ.  (There is much more to say about each of these, but that will have to await additional blogs.)
Here’s the short of it:  those who want to revise the historic Christian sexual ethic say agreement is not essential.  And those who would recast salvation in Christ as being one of several salvation paths believe that even divergent paths are ultimately the same path.  Those who hold to the historic beliefs in these areas say that they are essential, along with about 99% of the global church.  I agree.  And to indulge ourselves in the fantasy that we can continue as a denomination with liberty on matters so close to the center of our faith and practice is denial on steroids.
Then there’s the matter of charity.  We’ve congratulated ourselves at length about how polite we were to each other at General Assembly, and for the most part we were.  That is to the good.  Where we seem not to be doing so well is in the presbyteries where some congregations have decided they must leave.  What is it about “who gets the property” that tilts otherwise charitable Christians toward mean-spirited actions?  Whoever gets the property, both sides lose in these cases, and the Lord is dishonored.
When the church has unity in essentials, she can handle an amazing amount of liberty in non-essentials, and charity comes as a bonus.  But right now the PCUSA is trying to live outside that pattern.  It won’t work.  It can’t work.
What will happen?  Either God will move to restore our unity in essentials, or there will be some sort of split.  I pray for the former and dread the latter.  Without a miracle, I believe the latter is inevitable.  God has done miracles in the life of his church before.  Maybe he will again.  We’ll see.
It’s a good thing Jesus saves – even the church.
Lord have mercy,

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bring on the Coal

An Inkling
Woe is me.  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.
So prayed Isaiah when he found himself in the very presence of Almighty God (Is. 6:5).  It was and is a good prayer for a person like me who lives in the midst of a people like us.
I did today what I have done most years when I’ve been at General Assembly on Sunday – I skipped the official General Assembly worship service and found another.
Back in 1990, when I started going to Assemblies, I attended these services.  Their size is always impressive, for most of the Presbyterian congregations in the area join in the service.  You can also be sure that the service and its music will be planned with great care.  But after four or five years of this, and realizing that I left the service depressed each time, I decided for the sake of my own weak spirit that I had better find an alternative. 
Most often I have found a local congregation where I knew the worship would be distinct from the Assembly worship, i.e., one where I knew that the preaching would not likely denature the gospel, where the liturgy would not be more concerned with the odd standards for non-sexist language* than it was with honoring God, and where we would not spend the whole service congratulating ourselves on how diverse we are.**
Usually I’ve found a local congregation of Presbyterian flavor that was having its own service.  Once I attended an Orthodox Church across the street from the convention center.  This time I could find no ready local church option, so I went to a gathering of about forty friends in a hotel meeting room, all of whom had decided for reasons similar to my own, that they would do better to have their own service.
It was both wonderful and sad.  It was a wonderfully unself-conscious time of worship.  Language was unguarded, natural, and affectionate toward God.  Prayers for each other and the larger church flowed from the heart.  The songs were mostly a capella, but they were heart-felt and God-honoring.
I didn’t leave depressed, as I often have from the Assembly services.  Nonetheless, there was a sadness too, as I realized that I was in a part of the body of Christ that felt the need to worship separately from the larger part of that body.  We thereby gave expression in our worship to the very sort of divisions that mark us as a church these days.  Lord have mercy.
Or better yet, Woe is me.  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.  Lord, bring on the coal (Is. 6:6-7).
And start with me,
* For those unacquainted with these “standards,” they are such things as: 
  • It’s better to jump through all sorts of grammar hoops, thereby rendering the liturgy into clownish English, than it is to use the common biblical pronoun for God, “he.”
  • It’s okay to make rare use of the name by which Jesus frequently addressed God, “Father,” so long as it is “balanced” with a parallel reference to “Mother.”
  • But it is better to avoid “Father” altogether lest someone think that the one who wrote the prayer is ignorant of the “standards.”
  • Etc.  (Lots of etc’s.)
** This one is even harder to explain than the “standards.”  God’s Kingdom is diverse, and the less diverse a church, the paler it’s representation of the Kingdom.  But when the church in worship is more focused on its own diversity than it is on the One whose gracious presence can gather an amazing diversity, which is what I’ve found in most Assembly worship services, then worship devolves into mere corporate religious narcissism – not a pretty sight.