...are the ones that make the biggest difference



I appreciate the suggestions from the previous post, and have put several of them on my "wish list". I had specifically asked for Barnes & Noble gift cards for Christmas because when I was overseas with the Army, BN was the only company that offered APO shipping and the stuff got there in only a few days. But in searching around looking for books, I was disturbed to see that Amazon was consistently cheaper - in one case about $4.00 cheaper. Which means I could have gotten more books! For my birthday, I may have to go with Amazon. I normally go in for brand loyalty on this kind of thing, but cheaper books is a hard thing to ignore.

Book #1 - Reclaiming the Center edited by Erickson, Helseth and Taylor. I saw a review-in-progress over on Phil Steiger's blog and thought it sounded like a good read, and definitely on par with my post on the emergent movement's fear of certainty. I've only worked through some of the intro so far, but it looks challenging and informative. I'm sure there will be a few posts inspired by this one.

Book #2 - For the Life of the World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Thanks to those "people who bought this book also bought..." links, I was reminded of Fr. Schmemann, of whose writings I have heard numerous praises, but have yet to read myself. This book was originally written in 1963, and in reading the preface and 1st chapter last night, I was struck by how seemingly prescient this book is. Since Fr. Schmemann was tackling the rising head of secularism I suppose I should not find it all surprising, but what I've read so far could have been written today.

Here is a brief quote that got me thinking last night. Fr S is speaking about the tendency in our culture to "spiritualize" religion or to make it entirely about activisim and action to help people.

"Whether we 'spiritualize' our life or 'secularize' our religion, whether we invite men to a spiritual banquet or simply join them at the secular one, the real life of the world, for which we are told God gave his only-begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp."

In thinking about my context at a seeker-sensitive church, I see that in large part we attempt to do both. We are trying very hard to introduce people to the spiritual life, but without presenting the demands (often uncomfortable and frequently arduous) of discipleship. However, we are also trying to offer people practical advice on how to get along better with their spouse or deal with their anger. We have no material things to offer and instead offer the "materials" of therapy, the pscychological and social tools to help make everything ok. It is far easier for me to see the validity and benefit of the latter, while the former I find very disheartening. In trying to do one or the other, much less both at once, what are we really offering people? I am afraid that Fr. Schmemann just might be right - the real life offered to us in Christ disappears when we try to shape it to our whim or try to make it a little more comfortable.


Book suggestions

Thanks to generous friends & family, I have received (and will probably receive a few more on Christmas morn) gift cards for Barnes & Noble. Please leave a comment and let me know if there has been any book or books that have had significant impact on your faith. Or, you can just leave a suggestion for a book that was a fun and/or interesting read. Fiction is fine - I normally read sci-fi, but I'm trying to branch out - so suggest away!!


The Fear of Certainty

I am blessed with a job that allows me plenty of time to poke around the internet, which is both a blessing and a horrible temptation. At various times over the last few months, I have seen several postings on pomo/emergent blogs about theology and truth. I've left comments on some of these discussions and have gotten a relatively uniform response. I'll post some quotes, and then give my thoughts.

From Pomomusings in a post about theology and experience, wherein I left a comment asserting there may be an objectively true theology that we should strive to discover and adhere to it, I got this response:

"Theology is simply God-talk....I hate to break this to you bro, but there is no one, absolute, universal theology. It is impossible...There is no one way to think of God. There is no one theology."

From Harbinger, in a post describing "Vulnerable Generosity." Steve basically holds that VG is talking to others with the constant admission "I believe this, but I might be wrong" and it is really the best way for us to interact with the Other. I contended that at some point, not everything we believe should be "on the chopping block" merely for the sake of discussion. The author would have none of it, stating over a few posts:

"nathan, yes, everything has to be on the chopping block, or we are guilty of fundamentalism, dogmatism, and fideism in refusing to consider seriously the possibility that we are mistaken...I am familiar with the most valiant attempts in the history of philosophy to defend certainty, and I am also familiar with the arguments that in my mind decisively refute defenses of certitude."

The most recently, on Radical Congruency, Justin pens a piece comparing the Bible & theology to open-source computer programming. Its an interesting idea, but one that has its difficulties, as Justin realizes:

"I think many people confuse open-source with Wiki, the latter referring to online document collections that can be edited by anyone. Scripture is not subject to casual revision, though it is from time to time revised to reflect the best understandings of leading scholars and experts."

I'm not sure what revisions he is referencing above, but in the comments, I pointed out that there is some danger in opening our theology to be changed by anyone in our community - we don't know if they are being led by the Spirit or if they have a particular axe to grind, nor should we see our theology as mere God-talk. I pointed out that, ideally, our theology actually corresponds to the reality of God, and at some point, we have to put up a boundary that separates us as Christians from, say, Muslims. Another commenter replies in a lengthy post:

"I do not assume that any person has a firm enough grasp of the reality of God to adequately express Him to anybody. Nor do I think that any person could have such a firm grasp on the reality and truth and nature of God."

All of these were good discussions with insightful posts and points, but I am alarmed at the uniformity with which the pomo/emergent crowd thinks it is impossible that we can know the truth about God or, at the very least, are unwilling to say "I believe this is true." I know full well that I cannot *prove* that my beliefs are correct - I cannot prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection, I cannot prove the Trinity or the inspiration of the Bible - but I can say that I *believe* they are true, that they correspond to the reality of God. From there, I have a basis for living out my faith and participating in the communal life of the church.

What happens to a church or group of believers who are unwilling, or too scared, to make that statement of faith? What happens when we are unwilling to put a stake in the ground and say "we believe this is true"? This is a complete rejection of the historic witness of the church, in both its Traditional (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) and Protestant iterations. For the last 2,000 years, Christians have rooted their faith in specific events and specific beliefs about them - what about that makes this generation so uncomfortable? What drives this fear of certainty?


H.R. 235

In my inbox this morning was a mass email from Crosswalk.com with the subject line "Pastor Jailed for Sermon!" With such a suitably alarming subject, I opened it instead of deleting it as I normally do. Turns out a pastor, by the name of Ake Green, has been sentenced to one month in jail for alleged "hate speech against homosexuals" in quoting Romans 1:24-27. This, of course, happened in Sweden which made the story kind of anti-climactic for me. The email goes on to request that I, good updstanding Christian citizen that I am, sign a petition in support of H.R. 235 - the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, because "THIS ATROCITY IS NOW IN AMERICA!"

Call me cynical, but I tend to be quite dubious about political actions sponsored by evangelical groups. It is almost invariably something that gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies, but in the interest of fairness, I decided to do a little research. Here, gentle reader, is a brief synopsis of the back story on this piece of legislation as it appears on the HR 235 website.

A long time ago (1954) in a land far, far away (Texas), an evil man (then Senator Lyndon Johnson), introduced legislation stripping churches of their constitutional rights to speak on any issue the pastor so chose. Today, pastors are limited in their free speech rights and are afraid to speak out on the moral issues of our times for fear of losing their tax exempt status.

On the other side of the aisle, the story is, naturally, reversed. From Alternet.org (the second item to pop up on a yahoo search after the HR235 site), the restrictions placed on clergy are necessary to keep churches from becoming political machines. As the law stands now, clergy are not prohibited from speaking out on moral issues, only from endorsing specific candidates, ie, Republicans. Only one church has ever had its tax exempt status revoked, and that was a church that took out a full page ad bashing President Clinton's stance on abortion during the 1992 presidential election. The article also points out that the American Jewish Congress, the United Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches oppose this legislation and posits fears that churches will be back-doors for soft money to unethically enter politics.

At this point in my research, I am almost ready to sign the petition and spend my considerable political capital in support of this bill. That ECUSA opposes is reason enough, but when a liberal organ like Alternet makes noises about back-doors for soft money in politics, I can only laugh at the hypocrisy - hellooooooooooo, moveon.org and the million other liberal 527's anyone? But then again, Bev LaHaye supports the bill so I'm back at square one.

Searches for HR 235 return only interested parties, so I don't trust that they are entirely accurate. If you do the search, you may find some legislation on the State of Pennsylvania's site - its on eggs, which have never been tax exempt as far as I know and, of course, have a history of rampant political corruption. I found the bill on the House of Representatives site, and the relevant section reads:

An organization described in section 508(c)(1)(A) (relating to churches) shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a religious purpose, or to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, for purposes of subsection (c)(3), or section 170(c)(2) (relating to charitable contributions), because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.'. (emphasis added)

I admit I'm a bit hazy this morning, but how can a church be organized exclusively for religious purposes endorse or oppose a candidate and yet still be considered not to have participated in an election? I realize this is for "tax purposes" but it still seems pretty contradictory to me. I agree that churches will and should have political views, including support for specific candidates, but its ludicrous to pretend making that endorsement public is not participating in an election. So now, based on the apparent contradiction inherent in the legislation, I'm leaning towards "no," though I haven't made up my mind yet.

So what do you think? Should I sign the petition?


On a lighter note

My mom called yesterday to let me know she got me this icon for Christmas. She always wants us to have "something to open" on Christmas morning, but this is being shipped directly to me without any wrapping paper and that doesn't sit right with her on some deep, visceral level. :) I'm not sure my brother and I really get it, but I know I've always enjoyed her love for that kind of thing.

Thanks mom!

The lure of the effective

A few days ago I was poking around online at an Orthodox music store and found some samples, in various languages, of Orthodox hymns. I listened to several of them and found myself on the verge of tears, remembering our experience at St. George's in Arizona and traversing the depth and beauty of Orthodox worship. On a discussion board some months ago, a lay person described Orthodox worship as a feast, and listening to those hymns, I could not help but agree with him. I have been fasting for months and those online hymns were the rich aromas of my mom's kitchen on Thanksgiving day. How sparse our worship and theology are! What paucity pervades our devotion and praxis. Until I heard those hymns, I was only vaguely aware of the hunger pangs, but now, they have been brought to the fore and I can see that the meager gruel served here is not enough to sustain me.

I know there is goodness & godliness here, and that the senior leadership is driven by a deep desire to reach the lost with the Gospel. But in our desire to be "effective" in reaching the unchurched, are we sacrificing something? I cannot help but feel that we are, especially with what I talked about in my last post. Why can't we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us into the right things without relying on outside materials? Why are we so fixed on this model, even when it is clear that it will function only for a season and not endure beyond that? It feels like we are putting God into a very carefully tended and thoroughly locked cage based on "market data." The temptation to be relevant, to be effective, is a lure that is hard to resist, but if it comes at a cost, resist it we must.



What does the description "90%" say about something? If a food is 90% fat free, its still 10% fat. If a surgery is successful 90% of the time, 10% of the patients still die on the table. But those clearly have negative connotations, so what is something good? 90% growth is almost double. 90% is still an 'A', though just barely. 90% is a huge majority.

From a different perspective, if you plagiarize 10% of a paper or research project, its still 90% yours. But does that 10% constitute cheating? If you copy 10% of someone else's book, is that a copyright infringement? 90% of is still untouched. If 10% of your book is uncited pieces from other resources, have you lied to your audience? Though I'm no legal expert, I think it would be a yes to all.

So what would you make of it, then, to hear your church was culling 90% of its creative materials - sermon series & titles, worship ideas and even the sermons themselves - from other churches? What do you say to that? Because that is the startling news I heard yesterday while at lunch with our church planter. We were discussing the plant and some various issues at our church and he said approximately 90% of our materials are copied, primarily from Andy Stanley and his church. I found our latest sermon series, and several series we've done since I got here, on the Northpoint webstore. The thing is, we didn't even change the title of the series! We changed up the sermon titles themselves, and it appears we've mostly only borrowed from them and not copied them verbatim, but we've even used their graphics.

I knew we did some of that - its just a reality that churches face today. Its a tough job to come up with good, creative ideas every week and if someone put together something good, you borrow it. It is what it is. But I had no idea we did it to such an extent. And while I didn't have the rosiest picture of this place and its leadership before, I was coming to accept my place here and was able to see how God was using me with these kids. But this scares me - how healthy can this organization be if it has to do this on that scale? What might be eating away at the heart of this place? I just don't know what to think.


The Results Are In

The first Advent experiment was Sunday, and much to my relief and delight, it went extremely well. The junior high group did better with it than the high schoolers, but this is not at all unusual. The kids were, at first, a bit reticent to actually have to stand up and read something, but when I turned out the lights and lit some small candles to light the pages, there attitudes turned around immediately. They all became very quiet (even the kid with ADHD) and most seemed to relish the experience. In their world, they are surrounded by noise, movement and constant streams of information and sensory data - I think the effect of blocking all of that out, if only for a few minutes, had a profound effect on them, and on me. I was admittedly nervous, but the quasi-liturgy I had put together was simple and the kids followed it easily. The only problem was that it was far too short. I had thought it would take around 30 minutes, but it took only a little over 10. But the kids responded so well to it that I think I can safely extend things this week, and maybe even again the next. I put together a little impromptu homily, but this week I'll be more purposeful in my planning for that. The kids were so receptive, so open after the scripture readings that there is no way I can pass up an opportunity to speak to them at that point. Your prayers for this week are deeply sought and appreciated.

On a more mundane note, we finally got our floors finished and were able to actually move furniture into our downstairs yesterday. We've had a long hard slog with these floors, but we put the final coat of polyurethane on Friday night, and though it isn't perfect (much to my frustration!), the flaws are really very minor and it ended up looking quite good, if I do say so myself. So now we can live in more than one room. The other projects we have left are all relatively minor compared to that - some more painting, some paint removal, etc. We're very excited to be done with the floors!

And after only 8 years, I turned in the final paper for my final undergrad class yesterday. Due to paperwork issues, and living 2,000 miles from my school, I won't officially graduate until next May, but that does not in any way diminish my excitement and gratitude at having finally gotten this thing finished.



One thing I've noticed that is lacking in Protestant Christianity, especially evangelicalism, is a thoroughgoing vocational ecclesiology. I mean that there is little willingness to consider any spiritual path outside the mainstream, which is very egalitarian. Everyone can do every job or take on any role, and while there is an understanding of "calling", ie, "I've been called to do ....", that understanding does not extend beyond a very short list of possibilities. That's bad enough, but even within "normal" callings, there is still a social prohibition against specific practices. Take this article from Youthspecialties.com. This guy is describing practices, which historically, are perfectly normal and were widely accepted within the church. I think there is probably some degree of danger in undertaking these exercises without a more experienced guide - one of the key issues in monasticism, from what I understand. But more to the point, he will always be regarded as weird and possibly even mildly disturbed by the evangelical church.

Here are the general categories of exclusions, as I see them...

Exclusion #1 - Monasticism: (leaving aside for a moment that Protestantism has no monastic movement), but in a more general sense. The only people who can legitimately remain unmarried are gay people - and in many churches they are expected to be "cured" and get on with a wife and family already. There is effectively no room for a person to remain single for their entire life and marriage is viewed as the sole ideal for our lives. Perhaps if your spouse dies, you may remain unmarried after that, but that's still a little fishy to some.

Exclusion #2 - Mysticism: Contemplative prayer, fasting, Christian meditation, basically anything that results in an "altered state" no matter how holy. I think we've married ourselves to modernism so thoroughly that we've learned to distrust anything that cannot be rationally explained, which necessarily includes many spiritual things.

Exclusion #3 - Anything that smells like popery: No incense, no candles (except at Christmas), no liturgy, no memorized prayers, no prayer ropes, no sacramental understanding of anything and heaven help us should we actually show respect to Mary or any other saint!

No, numbers 2 and 3 are understandable to me in that I can see how our intense dance with modernism has made us too heady at the expense of being hearty and how the anti-Catholic swing started at the Reformation would lead to the rejection of Catholic trappings. I guess the latter would apply to #1 to some degree, but I guess I don't see why else we would have abandoned monasticism or at least rejected the possibility that some might be called to a life of singular devotion. If anyone has any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.