Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An Appreciation for Donald Miller, and a Few Thoughts

In some senses, the responses to Donald Miller's confession and follow-up that he doesn't worship all that often have followed a predictable pattern: you need the local church, stale coffee and difficult people and all, because the Bible says so.  And, yes.  True.  And why is it always the other people that are difficult, and I am never the difficult one?  But, I digress.

First, an Appreciation and a gentle nudge (or, "Unless you're Anne Frank, the "details of your life are quite inconsequential, really.")

Yes, that is a quote from Dr. Evil.  I must confess, unlike other members of the "Reformed, confessional, neo-Puritan, Old School, experiential tribe," I rather liked Miller's Blue Like Jazz.  I found it honest yet orthodox, unlike others of that particular genre, which, if I would mention, might ring a Bell, and Rob my current blog of its focus.

My sole critique of Blue was that it revealed a self-obsession and a self-importance that I think was the farthest thing from the author's intent.  The details of Anne Frank's daily life are riveting because she didn't know she was writing for an audience, oh, and she lived in hiding and was killed by the Nazi's.  She wasn't deciding what was really the fair-trade organic coffee in the aisle of Whole Foods.  But, he gave voice to the frustrations many (if not all) of us have with life in community.

So, when Donald Miller says that he finds Christian fellowship better in a group of self-selected friends than in the church, he's missing something.  It's not all that different from the old sentiment "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand."  He's missing the point that people are supposed to rub you the wrong way in the church, and you are supposed to love them anyways.

In that way, church relationships are far more sanctifying than friendships.  After all, if a friend is difficult, we have ways of making him a "former friend."  Not very godly, but it happens often.  Even Christians cast off people they find taxing, even though it is an ungodly thing to do.  But, in the church, we have no choice but to deal with people who don't like us very much, and to love them with the sort of love Christ has for us, as unlovable as we are.

Second, post-modernity is not as post-modern as you think (or what the not-as-young-as-he-once-was post-evangelical can learn from the old Neo-Orthodox guy).

Miller equates sermons with lectures, and thus with a modern, or Enlightenment view, of education primarily as the impartation of information.  He says he has learned little from sermons because he cannot remember any of them in particular.  News flash: I don't remember what I preached on two weeks ago either.  That is not how sermons work, and it belies a modernist assumption about both learning and preaching.  In the New Testament model, preaching is not primarily an information-dump on the hearer.  I realize that the Bible church school of preaching, which has infiltrated much of evangelicalism, is heavily modern in its assumptions.  Facts, quotes, long lectures, outlines, deductive points, etc are the order of the day.

But, if you look at the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, or of John Wesley, this is not at all how they preached.  They understood something many evangelicals miss --preaching is heralding forth a message, it is a divine encounter, it is God's Word to you.  Make no mistake about it --I am no fan of neo-orthodoxy.  One of its many fundamental mistakes is to force a divide between the Word written and the message preached.

And yet the sixteenth century Swiss Reformed realized that "the preaching of the Word of God is the word of God."  It is hard to imagine a herald stepping into the town square, yelling "hear ye, hear ye, the King is announcing terms of peace" and someone saying 'I just don't find that very relevant."  Or, for that matter saying, "Can you say that again, citing three authorities, so I can write it down in my Bible?"  Preaching is a divine summons, it is a divine encounter, it is the living God speaking with a living voice out of the living Word through the mouth of a messenger.  See Romans 10.

The old neo-orthodox guy who helped this Reformed preacher understand this is Fred Craddock, whose books on preaching I give to every aspiring preacher.  Lest anyone doubt my orthodoxy, one of my mentors in the ministry (whose orthodoxy no-one can question, or else he would not be a trustee of the Banner of Truth!) put me onto him years ago.  Incidentally, you will find a similar view in the little BOT booklet "What is the Reformed Faith?" on the distinctively Reformed view of preaching.  I would hasten to add, however, it is not particular to Calvinism, and that much African-American preaching instinctively understands this sort of immediacy and hortatory exclamation versus lecture, as well.

So, Donald, your assumption about preaching is modern, not post-modern, and perhaps that is because those are the only sort of evangelical sermons you have heard.  If so, shame on us as evangelicals, for not being the pleading ambassadors for God that we are supposed to be.

Singing doesn't help me connect with God

Certainly, there are many old men in the average evangelical church whose practice, if not thought, aligns with this.  And, every time my thought has been "I don't like this song very much," then I am guilty of it too.  But, this doesn't make it right.  God commands singing, and he does it for our benefit.  The fundamental mistake here, Donald, is that you equate what's best with us as to what we feel is best to us.  Feelings are not nothing, certainly (that would be modern), but neither are they determinative.  I don't always feel like having my children on my lap --but it's important to do it.  On Saturday, my youngest, pre-coffee, wanted to do a puzzle or play a game.  That wasn't what I felt like --but I thought "soon this child will be 25 and you will wish you had taken these opportunities."  We played a game that required thought, and we played until he won (about an hour).  I didn't feel like it --I am a bear before coffee.  My feelings perhaps were understandable.  But I needed to do it.  Singing is like that.  It's not a function of how my voice sounds, or if I particularly like it (part of the tribalization of worship is just because we are so captive to our preferences).  God commands us to sing, ergo it must be good for us, like medicine whose effect is not readily apparent, but does bring healing.

Will this blog make it to Donald Miller?  I doubt it.  Part of me hopes it will.  He is a thoughtful guy, and I hope this makes him think in a different way.

Monday, February 3, 2014

On Clout and Cashing It In or "He said the "R" word."

I was there.  I saw it and heard it.  I heard a good preacher of a large, fashionable and influential church, Presbyterian but not PCA, cash in his clout, to preach as if he had nothing to lose.  It doesn't happen very often, I fear.  It is, I know from my own experience, very costly to speak forthrightly in ministry.  It seems what churches often want is men who are orthodox, but not opinionated.  We often want "God's yes" but not "God's no."  This isn't new --someday, when I get to Heaven, DV, I am going to ask Jonathan Edwards about what it was like to get dismissed, and what he thinks sent his congregation over the edge with him.

The scene was the Mid South Men's Rally held annually at First Presbyterian Church of Jackson.  This is always a highlight on my calendar.  To be honest, the messages are often not the best part of the experience.  But, this year was different.  The preacher was Sandy Willson, pastor of the very large, very influential and very Southern Second Presbyterian Church (EPC) of Memphis.

And he said the "R" word.  Race.  In a room of white men in the middle of Jackson MS.  And, even in our day and age, that is a bold and radical thing.  Trust me, it is a very uncomfortable thing.  But, he did not just mention it in passing.  No, he fleshed it out in painstaking detail.  He talked about what men of privilege ought to be doing to help --not in a paternalistic way, but in an ennobling way.  He talked about public education.  He talked about doctors and lawyers and businessmen viewing their vocations in an intentional way, as a sacred trust, and not simply a way to make more money.  In Jackson, this is a huge issue.  He talked about the economic value of simply having white skin.  In other words, he talked about privilege.  This is uncomfortable.  We think we've got the race problem solved, you see.  We don't hold anyone's "blackness" against them.  We are embarrassed by the ugly racism of the past.  We are glad we can go to restaurants with African American friends.  It doesn't bother us to see an African American in the restroom or at the water fountain.  We've made progress --we really have, I mean that sincerely.

But, that doesn't mean we've seen the whole picture.  And, it is the preacher's burden and the preacher's joy to help people see the whole picture.  But, on this, and on a whole host of other issues, we don't want to see the whole picture.  And, since shutting God up eludes our capability, we will find ways to try to shut his messengers up.

Which is where clout comes in.  God affords certain men a particular stewardship.  He gives them a wider sphere of influence than their own pulpits.  He exalts them, and gives people the ear to listen to them.  Let's call this gift "clout."  It's the old E. F. Hutton commercial --when he talked (about investments, if you're too young to remember), people listened!  He was what Malcolm Gladwell would call an influencer --a person whose word carries weight.

If God gives clout as a divine trust, it would therefore follow that such clout ought to be cashed in, in the service of advancing the kingdom over and against the general inertia that seems to work against it.  In other words, being willing to surrender some clout to advance an unpopular cause.  There are reasons those who have clout don't want to do this.  Risk aversion, I think, is the result of rationalizing to one's self that it is more important to retain clout than to expend it.  After all, if I give up my clout, it is like using up all my call challenges too early --what if I need it later?

But, to me, this cheapens the call of Christ to us to come and die.  Martyrs not only gave up clout, but their very lives, in the service of kingdom advance.  FDR is famous for saying he would rather be right than president.  I am not sure if he was sincere or not, but the sentiment itself is noble.  Some causes are worth dying for.

I think it's far too easy for a pastor to rationalize that "just preaching the gospel" will effect social change.  But the truth is, the Scriptures contain far more than just gospel --although the gospel is central to it, and to all Christian proclamation.  Too often "just preaching the gospel" is merely a convenient way of sidestepping a costly and unpopular issue, like wealth, or race, or abortion, or whatever one's people really don't want to hear about.  The truth is, no preacher "just preaches the gospel."  He preaches on marriage, on stewardship, on parenting, on prayer.  He does that because the Bible talks about all these things.  So, "just preaching the gospel" doesn't exist.  It's not God's plan for preaching --God's plan is for preaching the whole counsel of God.  Don't let it be an excuse for you, preacher, not being willing to cash in your popularity in the service of an unpopular cause.  You are called upon to afflict the comfortable.  Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.

I am growing a bit weary of the celebrity and conference culture, and I've had to analyze a bit why. Some of it is my own sin --who doesn't want to have more clout?  It does often seem true that connections and networks get you farther than ability or hard work --just like every other profession.  But, part of it is I, though a "doctrinalist," am a bit doctrine-weary.  Orthodoxy must combine with orthopraxy.  We can keep people comfortable with doctrine, and make them proud.  We can give them a certain measure of psychological release from shame by making them aware they are worms and dust and ashes and full of sin, and that Jesus loves them anyway (which is true).  But, the chains never move if we don't get them to look down the field and be willing to risk it all run through the defensive line.  Latently, though we would decry this, we are teaching them that the universe really does revolve around them, that what matters, and all that matters, is the mighty "I" and his individual relationship to God --not being willing to die for the advance of justice and righteousness in the world."

Here endeth the sermon.