Friday, September 21, 2012

Maybe It's Easier to Solve a Problem Like Maria

On the general principle that publicans are closer to the kingdom than Pharisees are...

I agree it's a bad idea for pastors to use their children as examples, and I don't from the pulpit, and the ones I'm going to talk about aren't going to read this so I reckon it's alright to break that rule here and now.

The issue is this:  the bright, attractive, accomplished, compliant, self-reliant Pharisee child.  Know the type?  We have one of those here.  We do not, as of yet (and I pray we won't) have a prodigal --the child that may or may not be lovable, but that breaks your heart.  We do have a very high-maintenance child who tends to get into trouble a lot, mostly out of boundless energy and curiosity.  The effort of discipline tends to be mostly directed at him, because mostly he calls for it.

Which brings me to the "problem" child.  The problem is, she is anything but a problem!  She usually does nothing wrong.  She's conscientious, bright and motivated, and a lot of people (teachers included) tend to tell her how great she is.  This is not good.  I love her, but I fear for her --the worst thing I can do for her is to stoke the fires of pride and self-centeredness.  If I do that, she will be unbearable to live with, and pity the man that marries her.  At the same time, I do not want to dampen her enthusiasm, or fail to praise her when she excels (which, let's face it, she often does).

The heart of the problem is, as always, the problem of the heart.  I can love her and pray for her, and when I hear that Pharisee croak his ugly voice out of her cute little mouth, if she cuts down others, if she complains and critiques her mother, if she is snotty or bratty or throws a fit because she doesn't get her way, I can address her heart on the level of the gospel.  I am more and more convinced that we need to focus more and more on what Paul said to Peter at Antioch --you aren't behaving in accord with the gospel.  I have to find a way to say that in eight year old language.  We don't treat people or think of people that way, because it is not Christlike.

The worst thing I can do, as a parent struggling to do my job Christianly, is to make her my princess, the apple of my eye, the one I hold up as an example to my other kids, the one to whom they will never measure up (I'm not saying they don't measure up --they do).  I need to get her to see herself in light of this truth --God be merciful to me, a sinner.

How do you handle a child like this, if you have one?  I am starting to think that all parents need to watch the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before they have kids to learn what not to do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Friendship, Naturally....Or, Kuyper's Napkin Ring

I've told the story many times, but I find it very interesting.  One of my mentors in the ministry, of Dutch extraction and a lover of all things Dutch (the product of a mixed marriage, his father was RCA and mother CRC).  Someone gave him a prize possession --a silver napkin ring owned by the towering theologian, pastor, publisher, university founder and Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper.

The inscription?  Proverbs 17:17b.  The b is important. Proverbs 17:17 says, "A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity."  The b is "a brother is born for adversity."

And the lesson is, if you are only a friend to people when they make little demand of your time or energy, you're really not their friend at all.  You are acting sub-Christian; you are acting naturally.

I've observed this in the church --if a person is difficult or makes demands on our time and energy, we naturally lapse into self-protecting mode, and withdraw.  We want to be around cheerful people.  Nobody wants to sit with Job in silence.  I think sometimes Job's friends get a bad rap for their obnoxiously bad advice --but at least they were there with him.

Having gone through some low periods, as we all do, I know the demands that makes on friendship, and how little understanding people are who don't share that particular malady.  We withdraw from people who bring us down --we want those who will lift us up.  It's natural.  Misery may love company, but company generally doesn't like misery.  Sometimes being a friend just frankly stinks.  We naturally want to talk about football or the weather or politics.  We don't naturally want to plumb the depths of another's suffering to help lift him out.

I have known a few people with diagnosed borderline personality disorder, and others I suspect are afflicted with it.  It's one of the most intractable mental maladies of all, and distinctly unpleasant.  There are no shades of gray in relationship with a person with BPD --they are either your best friend or your sworn enemy.  If you've ever been written off by a person with no good reason, it may be that they have BPD.

Or, it may be that they are just acting naturally.  This hurts; I know.  I have wanted to take certain people and shake them and say, "You know, I love you, but you are a really horrible friend."  The friends that ceaselessly talk about self --it's natural to do that.  Dale Carnegie taught people to exploit that --people love to talk about themselves so, if you want to make a sale, get them talking about themselves, etc.  But, we would do well to learn from Dale.  There is a studied art to friendship, and part of it is learning how to converse --and say "but enough about me, how are you?"

The church is supposedly a supernatural community.  Why are we so often held captive to what we do naturally?  Why do people withdraw from us when times are tough?  Why, when a person falls prey to an illness do they sometimes receive few (if any) phone calls, cards, expressions of empathy, or offers of help?  There are times when it feels like a good idea, even to pastors, to give up on the church altogether.  But, then, you see that there are a precious few who do.  Praise God for them!  The ones who are living the transformed life, the ones who do care.

The church is often said to look just like the world in terms of morality, which is sad enough.  I think it's even sadder though, when the church looks just like the world in lack of empathy --when we allow ourselves the luxury of selfishness with time and energy.  If that's you and you're a Christian, you're like Peter in Antioch --your conduct is out of accord with the gospel.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Power of a Good Story, Well-Told

One of life's great pleasures for me is to read well-written books. I may care little about the topic or the subject, but good writing is compelling, in and of itself. Likewise, a fascinating figure or event can be rendered so inadequately that it becomes boring, and the details of the story itself are obscured behind turgid or unintelligible prose.

I am, as most who know me know, an avid devourer of biographies. I would rather read biography than anything else. The human story is compelling to me. There are some fantastic biographers out there: Manchester, Massie and McCullough come to mind (wonderful for alliteration). Right now, I am positively engrossed by Massie's huge biography of Tsar Peter the Great. I am waiting with baited breath for the third volume of Manchester's exhaustive work on Churchill, entitled The Last Lion. Manchester fell ill and the work had to be finished by another, but the man was hand-picked by Manchester and worked alongside him, so I am hoping not to be disappointed.

Probably the most compelling and well written biography I have seen in recent years is Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. Hillenbrand has a great subject –Olympic athlete turned castaway turned POW survivor turned evangelist Louie Zamperini. Equally important, she tells the story very well –history as page-turner.

As a minister, I communicate for a living. Preaching and teaching consume much of my working life. I also have the privilege of mentoring some aspiring pastors. I repeatedly tell them that, in my experience, both in homiletics classes and in our own preparation, the accent of preperation falls on what to say and not how to say it. This results in turgid sermons, jam-packed often with information, but not presented in a way that is either compelling or digestable. Sermons are a form of oral communication (quite obviously) –and we often write them as if they were intended to be read (My colleague Andrew Vander Maas did his D.Min. dissertation on this, and I am hoping he will turn it into a book). The danger is that we cease to improve, not so much in what we say, but in how we say it.

Preachers have the most compelling story to tell in all the world –the drama of creation, redemption and consummation through faith in Christ. We have a good story, we need to tell it well. Nobody I have found has done as good thinking on this as Fred Craddock, emeritus professor of preaching at Candler School of Divinity, Emory University. His two books Preaching and As One without Authority ought to be read and re-read by anyone who steps the pulpit. Craddock is a proponent of not imposing a foreign rhetorical form on the structure of Scripture lessons –but rather that the message itself ought to be shaped by the form of the passage under consideration. He is right –it's difficult to do, and oughtn't to be done in an artificial or wooden way (and frankly, not everyone should do it his way --but we can all learn from him). But, stop to ask yourself when the last time was you heard a sermon on a Psalm that was as beautiful and affecting as the Psalm itself? I can remember the last time I did –where I was sitting and who was preaching.

The telling of the story is as important as the story itself. I am not arguing that all preachers ought to follow one particular style (certainly not main point, 3 sub-points!) but rather that, whatever their particular style, they need to become the master of it. Everyone else is expected to improve their craft; preachers ought to, too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Our Big, Fat Greek Presuppositions (or "The Platonic Captivity of the Church")

"The longer I live" is something you start to say when you notice hair growing in your nose and ears, but why fight reality...."The longer I live and pastor in the church, the more I think we are the unwitting children of the Greeks."  Now, the Greeks were wonderful --Socrates, Plato and Aristotle deserve their places in the intellectual hall of fame.  They asked big questions, and formulated some of the best answers that one could, short of Biblical revelation.

(If your eyes glaze over reading this, just hang with me, I'll bring it home)

And yet....

Anyone who knows anything about history and doctrinal development knows that Roman doctrine, particularly after Aquinas, relied heavily on Aristotle.  Aristotle, it is said, reasons from man up to God, and in pondering how the human can possibly relate to the divine, posits a heirarchy of beings (one can see why it so resonated with Catholicism --think of those medieval pictorial representations of the universe with God at the top, man at the bottom, and a bevy of intercessors and mediators in between).

But, at least Catholics are honest.  The Western mind was a Protestant mind --that legacy is slow to die.  Even if it has died out in academia, it still permeates the understanding of the average person, even if he's never taken a philosophy course, and knows nothing more of Plato than his name.  Plato, it is said, reasons from God down to man, and the central feature of his school of thought is dualism.   Dualism discounts the physical world --sees it as a shadow (at best) or a deception (at worst).  The early church had to contend with dualism --it's why Paul got laughed at on Mars Hill.  The last thing a Greek wanted in the afterlife was a disgusting body, with all its filth and limitations.  But, perhaps even more difficult was the ingrained but opposing ideas that either the body was nothing, and so no deed in the body could affect the real you, and you could therefore be as immoral as you wanted, without affecting your soul (libertinism), or the body was in its very nature evil so all physical pleasure was therefore evil (asceticism).  So, in the early church, you get the detestable rites of the Gnostic sects, or Simeon Stylites on his pole for decades.  The saddest conclusion reached by Plato-drinking Christians was a denial of the resurrection, so pointedly refuted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

We have to admit, the Scriptures posit some duality --there is a distinction between body and soul.  Traditional Christian theology (though some challenge it now) teaches an intermediate state --a time when body and soul are separated.  We are quick to note that this is an unnatural separation, and not one that God  intended originally, nor will such a state go on everlastingly.  We are meant to be bodies and souls together.  The body and the soul are two different things, but they are friends, not enemies.

Essentially, the problem of Plato is that he (and we) make enemies out of things that are supposed to be friends.  Body and soul are meant to be together.  I don't think that evangelicals of the Reformed stripe would argue that point, but the presupposition sneaks its way into other nifty arguments --any time we put in opposition things that ought to hang together, we are channeling Plato.  Things like:
  • should a church be concerned about doctrine or about saving souls?
  • Should Christianity be more an affair of the head or the heart, more about reason and belief or emotion and love?
  • should a church be concerned about teaching or the poor?
  • Is truth or love more important?
  • Which is  more destructive:  lust or greed?  
  • Is emotion or reverence more appropriate for worship?
You can probably add to the list.  But the point is that each of those questions forces us to make a relative comparison --we value (or eschew) one more than another.  This is a false choice.  The right answer is "all of the above."

How can we in the church escape our Platonic captivity?