Monday, April 29, 2013

More than a Three-Legged Stool

It used to be said that the Church of England, at least in its middle or "broad" manifestation, rested upon a three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason.  One might hope that, at very least, Scripture would have been primes inter pares, though subsequent history leaves that very much in doubt.  In the church, Scripture must reign supreme.  And yet we make a big mistake if we ignore things like reason and tradition.

Tradition helps us guard against novelty for its own sake.  There seems to be a bias in favor of the new in today's church, not just in terms of worship, but in terms of doctrine and other things.  Ideas are not good simply because they are old (simony was an old idea, and it was pretty bad).  But, ideas that have lingered and stood the test of time often have done so because they are worthy ideas.  

Likewise, ideas that are new are not wrong because they are new, but the burden of proof should always be on the innovator.  Charging a theological idea with being a novelty is no light charge.  It would save the church a lot of controversy if those who saw things in a new way viewed the burden of proof as laying upon them to prove the worth of a new idea, instead of asking the courts of the church to prove it wrong.  Alas, that appears to be wishful thinking, but it would lend itself to keeping the peace and purity of the church.

I think much of the struggle in my own corner of the church world comes from a bias towards the old or the new.  One side guards the old, and is suspicious of anything new.  Another side is perhaps overly enamored with novelty.  Neither of those charges are probably entirely fair.

The truth is, personal balance and perspective is very hard to maintain.  It's more like a bench with many legs than a stool.  Being winsome, stubbornly orthodox,  and yet creative, and not closed off entirely to the new, or new expressions of the old, being self-critical and being able to laugh at one's own foibles is a difficult balance.  It means not locating the "problem" solely or primarily in others, but seeing it in ourselves, too.

How do I, a denizen of the old places, suspectful of the new, keep from becoming brittle and defensive?  That is the danger, you see, of closing off the mind.  My ability to defend truths I think are settled matters may be weaker than I think it is.  Then, it is challenged by something new.  And, because I am unsure of my own reasonings for believing how I do, I view it as an attack rather than an opportunity for interaction and a deeper understanding.  Or, a new way of thinking or presenting something eternally true appears, and my reflex is to dislike it, because it is not how I am used to thinking.

Lest any of you think I am doubting the fundamental core truths of God's Word, let me tell you those things are not on the table.  I will say, however, that one of the ways we strengthen our reasoning muscles is by allowing our faith to be challenged by the difficult questions, and reasoning our way back towards truth (Schaeffer's True Spirituality is a model of this).  Sadly, what I see in conservative Reformed quarters is to slough off dismissively any challenge to any way of thinking or doing things.  I think much of this is a result of two things.  First, we refuse to laugh at ourselves --we take ourselves too seriously.  This is nothing other than pride.  If we cannot see our own foibles and say "you know what?  I am a rigid jerk from time to time," then we are probably pretty insecure in what we really believe.  To do this about "We" as a group will get you excluded from the group as one who does not really belong, the one stubborn juror versus the twelve angry men.  Trust me.

We have put more faith in our ability to defend the truth than the truth itself.

Let me provide a couple of examples.  One is in the area of preaching.  One time, I was to give an interactive talk on preaching --a lunch with students.  I wanted to call it "Beyond Expository Preaching."  I got censored.  I got told by powers that be that "expository preaching is the only kind of preaching."  Now, I believe in expository preaching.  I am a fan of it.  I practice it (or try to).  But, I think our definition of it too narrow.  I think obsession with it makes us dry and dull.   I think the deductive (main point, 3 sub-points and a poem) actually damages communicating the text in many instances.  I wanted to press these aspiring ministers to think of preaching in a hortatory sense --true to the text, but also as building a credible case, more than just a lesson in what the text says.  But, this threatened some people.  They weren't used to thinking about it beyond what they have been taught --needless to say I reminded them that 3 points and a premise is found nowhere in Scripture.  I never received an answer on that one.  Score one for rigidity.

A more serious example.  I have had my eyes opened in recent years, both through reading and through life in the Deep South, of what one might call systemic race prejudice or (albeit an overused term) "white privilege."  Think the old Eddie Murphy SNL skit where he dressed up like a white guy, and people gave him things for free, etc.  Humorous, but he had a point.  African-Americans (or those of other races) face barriers and obstacles to success in our society, not because anyone means them particular ill will necessarily (though that still exists), but because we have placed barriers to entry that make it difficult.  The sea change in white thinking, by and large, is that "we've changed, we don't feel that way about other races anymore, now there, don't all you African Americans feel better?  You can drink from our water fountains now," without realizing that barriers we have built into our churches and societies make that difficult.  We fail to realize that our own networks have helped us get where we are, and "outsiders" of whatever kind lack those networks.  No man is an island, someone helped us somewhere along the way, and probably significantly.

We wonder why African Americans (or any other minority group) can't just get over it, pull themselves up by the bootstraps (after all, some have) and succeed.  We put the blame for the endemic problems of that community squarely back on that community without thinking of our own complicity in erecting barricades.  We lament affirmative action because it lowers barriers of entry but puts a person with an inferior education (perhaps) in a position to fail, or results in a lowering of the standard.  That begs the question --why not improve the educational opportunity on the front end, so the child is poised to succeed?  

The private school may not be off limits because of policy, but it is because of price.  Bad enough, doubly bad when it has the name "Christian" on the front of it.  The good neighborhood may not be blocked off by a realtor refusing to show a family a house, but it is because of cost.  The white church might desire to have black members, but won't groom them for leadership or surrender the reins of power, or think about doing things that may be reflective of a different culture and its values and comfort.  We want them to come (into all these arenas, and the desire is genuine) but to come they have to (in reverse of the old Burger King) have it our way.  

But, this is met with the rigid response.  "I don't bear any person of any race any particular ill will, therefore why should I be blamed for the way things were or are?"  That is a reactive ethic, sometimes called the silver rule --the Hippocratic oath of life-- "first do no harm," or "Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you."  But Jesus calls us to a proactive ethic.  We are to seek out, to do unto others, not to lay back, and let others founder when we could, in fact, change things.

What is missing, I think, is not only the ability to laugh, but the ability to self-critique.  I cringe when I hear the well-meaning young seminarian say that he doesn't see any point in ever reading anything with which he disagrees.  We have to be able to examine ourselves, to test ourselves, to try all things, and hold fast to the good.  It's as if we view the truth itself as brittle, as liable to being defeated, as only as strong as our poor ability to defend it.  And our spiritual life and our communal life ossifies as a result.  If we never ask ourselves (about preaching or race relation, or a myriad of other things) --am I really right about this?  Is there something else I could be doing?  Am I blind to some of it?  Am I open to the possibility I am, in fact, wrong?  Humility demands humor and self-critique.  

Now, well and good, you say, but I know you.  You are the the worst example of what you just wrote above.  This looks like you are chastising others for that of which you, yourself, are guilty.  Yes, guilty.  I am.  But I see it, and am asking for change.  And that's all I ask.  God to God with stuff like this.  Part of his remaking us in his image must surely be what we might call an epistemological humility (yes I love to sound smart).  All I'm trying to say is this --the question is not the truthfulness of Truth, but the question is whether I know and hold and practice all the Truth in a way that does not hinder the Truth from shining forth in my life.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What You Gonna Do When Your Well Runs Dry?

I try to write now and again because writing helps me think and gets the creative juices flowing.  I think I write sermons more efficiently when I have something to blog about first.  Usually, I blog about a bee in my bonnet --but maybe there are less of those now than there used to be, or maybe I just have said everything that can be said about the things that bug me most!  

So what do you do when you feel driven to write but you don't have anything cooking in your mind and heart to write about?  I think about Harper Lee, who wrote one great novel.  One.  Nothing else.  When asked by a friend why she never wrote again, she said, 

"Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."

Reports are that Miss Lee is now aged, frail and forgetful.  She will not write again.  Some suggest that her perfectionism kept her from doing more, that she started projects but never finished them.  As an aside, it just struck me that this is my second post in a row (in a time of very sparse posting) about someone walking away from that for which they were well-known.  I don't want to read into that.  But, I digress, which is maybe why I shouldn't write.  Too many digressions...

If a pastor is worth anything, he is involved in a great and exhilirating and frustrating and nerve-wracking creative enterprise likely more than once a week. His work requires heavy spiritual, mental and emotional investment.  He has to keep grazing over a lot of material that is not germane to his immediate task, to keep his reservoir of creativity full.  If he does not do this, he will become boring and repetitious.  This is above and beyond saturating himself with Scripture and theology and the primary and important things.  He must read and watch and listen and observe to understand people.  What is their cultural currency?  What are their deep aches?  What things plague them?  What are their idols?  

The great danger in this is being superficial --treating sin as if it is a matter of mere behavior and not epistemic rebellion deep within us that we may hate, but find impossible to root out ourselves, for instance.  Or, erecting straw men and then burning them down, to the delight of his congregation, who are thus confirmed in their self righteousness.  Or, denouncing all the sins of which he himself, and his hearers, are likely not personally tempted to do --once again, feeding the furnace of self-righteousness within every hearer.  The temptation to be plastic and simple is a strong one. You can satisfy yourself that you are thoroughgoingly orthodox.  Your hearers will love you because you're against all the right things, and you've simply affirmed everything they believe.  You've become an afternoon talk radio host with a Christian veneer and a simplistic gospel tacked on the end of your message.

The danger on the other side is viewing a sermon as a literary set-piece, a work of performance art, art for its own sake, carefully crafted and spoken but utterly lacking in connection or reality --the sort of sermon that might read well in a book in fifty years (assuming that anyone would read a book of sermons, particularly yours, fifty years from now).

And the danger on yet another side is that, in seeking to be prophetic and real, you become overly gritty and offensive, either because you are trying to shock people awake (which only works so many times, as the movies find, the first curse word shocks , the five hundredth  one isn't even heard), or because you are trying to slap people upside the head whom you perceive to be indifferent, and you, if you accomplish nothing else and may awaken to find your bags packed for you when you return home for Sunday lunch) at least grabbed their sorry selves for a moment and perhaps made them think.

And I'll refrain here from critiquing the sort of preaching that reduces the plain sense of the Biblical text to a gnostic puzzle, sorted out by the indispensable mystic cleric, and from which Jesus is conjured out of every rock or sneeze.

None of this is good.

So what then should you try to do?  You should try to say what the text says in the way the text says it, in such a way that the hearer is drawn in, and brought along to his own conclusions, which are the right conclusions because they're the conclusions pressed upon your soul from the text, without manipulating him into getting there.  That seems to me to be how Jesus preached.  And let me tell you, it is impossible.  it's one of those perfect things like a chimera on a distant hill, that you see for a moment, and grasp at it, and then it's gone and you're back to three points and a poem.  You hear it in the voice of others, and you want it desperately for yourself.  

Preaching is too rarely viewed as an art, as a craft.  The pressure of doing it every week forces the preacher to think far more about content than form.  Yet, form is the vehicle for the content --and the ideal form recedes completely into the background, so that the hearer cannot escape hearing the Divine voice, and have impressed upon him in that one existential moment --a decision.  Whether believer or unbeliever, he is faced with an inescapable decision.  He is brought to a fork in the road, and he must say "All the Lord says I will do," or "Do not let this God speak to us again."  He is always faced with the choice --towards life by the narrow road that is difficult and which few find, or to death by the broad and easy road.  

The believer faces this, not with the danger of losing his salvation, but with the choice of the abundant, godward life that comes from humble contrite following of Jesus, or the choice to dine in the sewer of the world and its rotting delights, and to starve himself.  

The true preacher preaches because he can't but preach.  Many times he would far rather make rivets than preach.  Many times he sits at his desk, proverbial pen in hand, writes, and then grieves because he doesn't have it --he hasn't yet grasped what the Spirit would have him grasp, and it is agony.  Many the preacher has said "I love to preach, I loathe preparing to preach."  Alas, often true.  Handling holy things with dirty hands makes one feel dirty.  The truth works you over before you employ it to work others over.  There are texts I would rather avoid preaching because I fear that I will live out whatever temptation or struggle they addresses.  God works his prophet over to keep him humble, and so the sermon is not just a matter of academic interest, but has captivated his whole being.

Well, I guess I did have something to say after all...Thank you for your time!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry or Why Don't Christians Sing Like They Used To?

The lovely Delta chanteuse with the dusky voice might be all but forgotten if it weren't for her biggest hit "Ode to Billy Joe."  That would be tragic, but understandable.

Bobbie Gentry was a big star in her day, even for a time co-hosting a network prime-time show with Glenn Campbell.  She incorporated the blues of her native Mississippi Delta into a true crossover art form --she is hard to peg as country, rock or blues.  And her voice is utterly arresting.

So what happened to her?  At one point, she just stopped singing and she walked away.  Details of her subsequent life are sketchy at best.  Why?  Nobody knows.

One of her lesser known hits is "Glory, Hallelujah, How They'll Sing!"  It is a slice-of-life poem about being carted to an all-day country sing:

Up at five and done with the chores, the family piles in the pickup
Meetin' at the church house all the folk's from miles around
And packed between mama and daddy and all of the kids is a bushel basket
Heading for an all day country singing and dinner on the ground
Where they'll sing, glory hallelujah how they'll sing...

Ladies dab their throats and brows with hand embroidered linen
Cool their dampened feedsack bodices with cardboard fans
Fans that advertize on one side Lanie's funeral parlor
While Jesus on the other side out stretches nail-scarred hands
And they sing, glory hallelujah how they'll sing...

Do me so, la so me do
Do re me, fa ti do
Do me so, la so me do
Do re me, fa ti do

A Deacon in a white nylon short sleeve shirt leads the singing
A book of matches in his pocket, and a ball point pen
Inside the cover of the matches is the deacon's name and address
Enroll him in a course thats offered to outstanding men...

And he sings, glory hallelujah how he'll sing

Now lets turn to page three forty in our Broadman hymnals
A pinned roll banded hand prepares to strike the opening chord
A small boy whispers to his mama, do natives* go to heaven?
And they lift their voices to the sky, sing praises to the lord

And they'll sing, glory hallelujah how they'll sing

Now, I've been to a few all-day singing type events in my time.  When I was minister in small-town Greensboro, Alabama, one of our dear older couples would pile us in their car to take us out to the country (if you think that Greensboro is the country, you have another thing coming!) up to the old Mount Hermon Methodist church for a Sunday night sing.  Those people sang loud and they sang well.

When I was young, the Christian Reformed Conference grounds in Western Michigan likewise sometimes hosted singalongs, as did the one Christian Reformed Mega-Church, Sunshine.  The staid, dour Dutch, so reserved in so many areas of their lives, sang with gusto.  Glory Hallelujah how they sang.

And, our two wonderful years at old Seventh Reformed Church on Grand Rapids, Michigan's West Side introduced us to a church that loved to sing.  They loved to sing whatever was put in front of them from the sturdy but neglected hymns of the old Blue (Green) Trinity, Psalms and gospel revival hymns.  Something like 9-10 on any given Sunday, between morning and evening, with a pipe organ perfectly  matched to complement, but not overwhelm, congregational singing.

Now, we in our effete Presbyterianism might take theological issue (or even an issue of taste) with what they chose to sing.  I guess, to paraphrase D.L. Moody, "I prefer how they sang to how you don't." And that's my question.  What is happening to singing in the modern church, and particularly in my particular part of it?  Some have remarked that public singing has become a rarity and the church's worship therefore stands out as something altogether odd.  We don't gather to sing the way people always have from time immemorial.  We go to hear people sing, which is altogether different.  We are used to being entertained, not participating.  That explains but doesn't excuse.

Like Bobbie Gentry, we just walk away from singing.  I notice it in my own congregation.  Sometimes our singing is barely audible.  Our self-consciousness keeps us from singing "loud praise to Christ our King."  We sing a wide variety from the ancient to the excellent hymns of today.  Not all are my particular favorites.  But I feel compelled to sing.  The HOly Spirit presses it out of me.  I do not have a good voice (just ask the nursery volunteers when the sound man forgets to cut the mike!).  No matter.  God deserves loud praise.

Quite frankly, I think we don't sing loud because we don't really have the sacred affections that Edwards wrote so eloquently about nearly three centuries ago.  The only thing that will help our singing is if the Holy SPirit puts the song back in our hearts.  I long for that to happen.  I long for a church that worships more with reckless abandon than with reservation.  Decently and in good order, of course.  But, with full hearts that must inevitably give rise to full voices.  The only place I've come close to this experience in the current day were at Banner of Truth or Sovereign Grace conferences.  The question is why don't the people sing like their pastors do at those conferences?  Perhaps I'll just have to wait for Heaven when we will all sing as we ought, and our timidity will flee away.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Downton Abbey is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon.  Its characters are vividly drawn and one might see shades of one's own self in the various members of the household.  If someone asked me, "Which Downton character are you?"  without a doubt it would be....Carson.  Nobody who knows me is at all surprised.  In fact, I have been heard to growl a "Very good, sir" when requested by my children to wait on them.

Carson is the guardian of the old way.  He is, by far, the most conservative member of the entire household and staff.  He loves the aristocracy more than the aristocrats do.  The dowager countess is more progressive than he is  --for instance, she has far kinder things to say about the chauffeur-turned-son-in-law Branson than Mr. Carson does!  He was mortified when he was threatened with blackmail by an old acquaintance who threatened to reveal his dark past  --as a vaudeville hoofer.  Horror of horrors.  Upon its discovery, he offered his resignation.  The Earl laughed.

I sometimes wonder if I am one born out of due time, though God's will admits of no mistakes.  Why am I thinking about this?  All the preachers I love and resonate with are retiring or have retired.  There are only about 5 or 6 singers or acts whose concerts I would attend --and most of them are dead or retired.  The people of the past --be it political figures or celebrities or pastors or whatever-- hold far more fascination for me than those of the present.  Harry Truman and Ike, for instance, may have appeared rather bland and bloodless, but they are endlessly more fascinating than any one of either party in DC today.  At least to me.

Life as an anachronism is not a comfortable thing.  After all, I'm 41.  A lot of life left to go.  I do not like change.  Like Carson, it rankles me.  I even preach like an anachronism, despite my best efforts not to.  A younger aspiring preacher (very bright and gifted in my estimation) said to me "I cannot preach like you."  I told him "I think your gifts are more suited to today, and mine to yesterday."  Alas, God's will admits of no mistakes.

I am not sure what lesson to draw from all this.  I know I have not blogged a lot of late --like Harper Lee, perhaps I just ran out of things to say.  But, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to say this.