Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Church Impossible or "To See Ourselves as Others See Us"

Okay, I've become addicted to Restaurant Impossible, a kinder and gentler version of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.  The premise of the show is this:  celebrity chef Robert Irvine sets out to save a failing restaurant, given just 2 days and $10,000.  Often what you see makes you never want to eat in a restaurant again.  Dated decor, filthy kitchens, uninspiring food (often from cans and without such basics as salt and pepper), vermin, surly owners and unsanitary food storage.

It makes you wonder, "Can't these people see this?"  The truth is, quite often, they cannot see it.  Why?  They are so immersed in it.  It is their world, seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day.  Even if they wish things could be different, they have no idea how to make them better.  They need an outsider, an expert, to come in and show them the way.  Usually, what Robert finds is by teaching them a few techniques, giving them a new start, and a few pep talks, he can transform a restaurant. At the end of each show, they give a brief update from three months later.  What would be more interesting is how the restaurants are faring a year or more down the road.  Were the restaurateurs really capable of change, or will they fall back into familiar yet ultimately destructive habits?  Several of those he tried to save have indeed closed.

I have remarked to my wife that it would be great to have a Church Impossible --someone to come in from the outside and look at the facilities, the worship, the decor, the culture and demeanor of a church and its pastor.  The result would no doubt be painful, but, when we are immersed in our own world, it can be so difficult to see how others see us.  We think we are nice people, why don't more people join with us?  Or, we think we know how we need to change, but our own opinions are very much colored by our own subjectivity.  An older friend in ministry told me once to write down everything negative you notice during your first six weeks because, after that, you won't have the eyes to see it any more.

Every church has a mythology about it.  Outsiders may see us, our facilities and worship, our staff and membership, very differently than we perceive ourselves.  Often a pastor, as an outsider, can see these things, but meets great reticence to change or improve.  He doesn't have the built-in credibility of a long-time member, and fights the institutional inertia that plagues every group of men and women under the sun.

Some things we might write off as superficial really aren't.  God deserves our best, he deserves us doing whatever we do, well.  So, some questions we might ask ourselves are these:

Are we really a friendly church?  How deep does the friendliness go?  Are we quick to invite visitors over for lunch, to bring new members into our circle of friends?

Do we do our music well, whatever style it might be?  Does the congregation sing in a way that is worthy of the worship of God?

Do the sermons exalt Christ and invite others to know him, and, for those who know him, inspire them to follow him more faithfully, in every area of their lives?  Are they accessible, yet challenging?  Does the pastor seem to care about both truth and people?  What could he do better?

Is the facility inviting, well-kept, bright and easy to navigate?  Is the nursery convenient to the sanctuary?  Are the spaces open?  Are the bathrooms bright and clean?  Do the lights all work?  How is the sound?  (These things may seem mundane, but they send a message --do these people care about their facilities as the place they gather to worship God?)

There are many more questions that could be asked.  So, what would you ask?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Piety and Learning, Gentleness and Conviction

The last several years were difficult for my friend Knox Chamblin.  He seemed to have one health trial after another.  His anemia gave way to an aggressive leukemia.  He suffered well.  He suffered as a Christian.  He asked God for healing.  He came to the elders to be anointed with oil.  Last week, the Lord took him home.  His prayer for healing was answered and we will see the result at the resurrection of the just.

I loved Knox Chamblin as a professor.  I had him for Pauline Epistles and C. S. Lewis.  I did not know him well as a student.  I remember, as a brash Yankee, first hearing his gentle Southern accent.  I remember being moved as he wept at the lectern.  I loved his classes, his unique take on the text of Paul, his Calvinist's love for C. S. Lewis.

What a privilege it has been to be his pastor and his friend for these past five years.  I have yet to come to terms with the fact that he is gone.  The other delight of these past five years is coming to know and to love his dear wife, Ginger.  I have never known two people like them.  Words fail me to describe them and their relationship, and their ministry both individually and together.  They were some of my inner ring --those people to whom a pastor can go on a dark day, and confide in, and know that he was being lifted up by them in prayer.  Scripture tells us (Hebrews 13:17) that some people will be hard to pastor, and tells us not to be those people.  Knox and Ginger are the exact opposite --they have always been more of a blessing to me than I could ever be to them.)  During Knox's long hospitalization, the Lord gave me some wonderful times of prayer and reflection with him.  Many people make small talk.  Knox was not unusual in that regard.  Yet, inevitably, the conversation naturally turned to the preciousness of Christ and his word.  It was not forced, it was not artificial, it was part of the warp and woof of this man's being.

Knox Chamblin was a unique man.  He was a Biblical scholar with a poetic soul.  He was an irenic and peaceable soul of unshakable conviction.  He was a seminary professor who went to prisons to visit.  He was a minister in the PCUSA to the end of his life,  yet devoted his life for the last thirty years to a PCA congregation.  Christ has his warriors and his polemicists, and they are necessary.  But, Christ also has his gentle giants and his peacemakers, and Knox was one.

Knox was not named for the great Scottish reformer.  If memory serves, one parent was a Baptist, the other a Methodist, and, in true twentieth century fashion, they settled in their married life on being Presbyterian.  What a providential happening!  What a blessing that this singular soul was entrusted by God to perhaps the most cantankerous part of his fractious family.  For Knox there was no separation between scholarship and doxology and piety, between heart and head and hand.  So many of us have such a hard time holding those things together.  Whether it was effortless for Knox, he and the Lord know.  It certainly looked seamless to me.

Knox was brilliant beyond reckoning, certainly.  His work Paul and the Self, a masterpiece of Christian psychology (in the theological, not technical sense of that word), is no easy read.  His commentary on Matthew is as devotionally rich as any Ryle ever wrote, and far more scholarly.  God, in his grace, allowed Knox to finish that work, and I am grateful.

Knox's memorial service was the most moving service I have ever been party to in our church.  Throngs of people, "It Is Well" and "How Firm a Foundation," reading Psalms especially dear to him in his affliction, reflecting on his life and how it reflected Christ, Ralph Davis reminding us that Christ is sympathetic to us in our losses, but violently angry at death itself, and alone has the power to overcome death  --a beautiful, wonderful and awful thing all wrapped up into one.

I am thoroughly dissatisfied with what I have written.  My words fail this good man.  My grief today feels different than that of last week, or of his service.  Today it is the dreary dull reality of loss and emotional weariness.  I am grateful to God that he gave us Knox for 76 years.  I am so grateful for these last 5 years.  Yet, how I wish they could have been many more.