Friday, January 30, 2009

Theologians Make Good Sports Fans

Throughout my time in seminary, I have often been baffled by the sports enthusiasm of some of my professors. How can they know as much as they do about theology, Greek or Hebrew and still know the baseball statistics or football trivia they do? I've been down right stymied when they have expressed amazement at a particularly dazzling performance in a basketball game, or demonstrate anticipation for "March Madness." Valuing "heavenly" or ministry knowledge over "earthy" knowledge at times, I was in the midst of developing my appreciation for a more balanced life. One of the characteristics I so admired about several of my professors was their well-roundedness.

It's taken nearly 5 years of seminary education to realize this point, but it's a lesson born of principles I learned prior to seminary: balance is not achieved by taking weights off of both ends of the scale; it's better pursued by placing weights on either end of the scale. By "weights" I mean interests. If academic interests are weighty, then balanced would be achieved by having corresponding interests in an opposite category. Thus the scale is balanced better.

For example, if historic theology or ancient Near East backgrounds to Old Testament studies weighs down one end of my "scale," then a competing interest in areas of "release" will balance it out. In this way, I find that I have become more of a hockey fan as seminary as gone by. Last night, though I was reading on the dominance of evangelicalism in the late 19th century, I was elated (yelling loudly) when the Dallas Stars beat the Detroit Red Wings 4 to 2. Interestingly, I was never really a sports fan prior to coming to Dallas Theological Seminary. It took the academic rigors of seminary to drive me to the emotional elation and release of sports.

I lamented terribly that my wife was absent for the Stars' win (on a trip and unable to enjoy the victory with me). Nevertheless, I find at work in me an intuitive desire to balance out "weighty" interests on one end with "relieving" interests on the other. Pastors must have hobbies. Scholars must have interests of excitement and release. This is starting to explain to me why theologians make good sports fans.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Submission is un-American

My examination of the rise of evangelicalism in America from the 1730s to the 1840s has revealed some alarming discoveries that had previously gone unnoticed. As I read through the assigned book this week for my course (The Expansion of Evangelicalism, John Wolffe), I noticed that whenever a disagreement arose between a minister (typically operating within a denominational framework) and his superior, the instinct was to break away from the parent structure and start something new. Page after page demonstrated how intuitively evangelical revivalists of the "Second Great Awakening" were willing to sever connections with their respective organizations over matters of operational or revival practices. Seemingly absent from the historic record were any times in which a revivalist might have disagreed with his superiors, but then submitted to their authority anyway. The rise and expansion of evangelicalism in the young republic seemed devoid of ministerial submission to those over them in their denominational structures. Disagreement simply occasioned opportunity to break off a new and more specialized denomination.

Concurrent with the rise of evangelicalism was the North American brand of political revolutionism. Unable to stomach abusive tyranny any longer, the colonies threw off their former bonds and carved out a New World for themselves. However, because the first "Great Awakening" predates the American Revolution, one cannot argue convincingly that revolutionism exerted influence on the evangelical churches of the 1730s and 1740s. But then again, the fracturing of American revivalist Protestantism didn't kick into high gear until after the Revolution (from the 1790s through the 1840s). What can be posited here though, is that the individualism fostered by evangelicalism in the first "Great Awakening" may very well have influenced the popular trend toward self-governace. Following that, Revolution reciprocated by turing around and influencing the further spread of evangelicalism as a movement.

For this reason, the splintering of the evangelical denominations in the post-revolution antebellum period can be viewed as a series of church "revolutions." Revivalists that found parent denominational protocols too restrictive could throw off those shackles as a foundationally American instinct. One could no more submit to a "tyrannical" church superior than the colonies had submitted to a tyrannical governmental superior. This is not to necessarily critique the American Revolution as regrettable, only to lament how uncritically its influence was accepted by evangelical clergy. Virtually eradicated was the instinct to submit one's self to superiors in an organizational structure. As an American, any restriction of new ideas that came to me was a godless attack on my liberty, necessitating a new direction and autonomous freedom to carry it out.

In many ways, the evangelical church in America still uncritically carries on this legacy. Consider that a Baptist distinctive is the "autonomy of the local church" valued on the short list of chief confessional doctrines. As my own ecclesiology has developed, I've become aware that the constant seeking of ministerial autonomy can veer into negative waters. Had my former church (affiliated with the Baptist Missionary Association) stayed open, I would have had to consider how to operate within that network in a manner that satisfied my conscience and developed my submission in ministry. As it is, I now serve with a church within a denomination. Gateway Fellowship has an organizational structure, in the middle of which I serve a post. There are those that submit themselves to the leaders of this church, and the church submits itself to leaders within its denominational network (to the degree it is required by the denomination; for most Baptist denominations its very minimal).

All of this is to observe that one crisis facing the Christian church in America is a crisis of submission. As Americans, we simply find it difficult to suspend our wants and agendas in favor of direction given us from above. While it is human nature around the world to resist authority, we have made it a virtue for over two hundred years, even championing "revolution" with religious zeal. While this need not detract from celebrating the 4th of July, in church we must remember that we've been conditioned outside the church that submission is un-American. Fortunately, our songs about our King, the Lord Jesus Christ, can remind us that church is not America. It is an embassy for the Kingdom of God, planted in a foreign country to represent the sending kingdom's interests. In the church, we have a King, a benevolent monarch who not only deserves out complete submission to his divine (and at times delegated) rule, but can at any time require it as well. In this way, while I am certainly an American, my exercises in submission show me to be more a Christian.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Church Music: part 3 - submission and the bondage of personal tastes

One of the great chronic symptoms of Christianity in America is a crisis of ecclesiology. We have been taught to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" with such emphasis that the communal nature of Christianity has been largely marginalized. "Church" is not attended on Sunday mornings so much as the local "gospel mall" is visited to find the shop that will fulfill my personally felt needs. Loyalty to the church is maintained so long as it caters to the desires of my heart on any given day depending on mood swings, circumstances of life or whether I've been faithfully on my meds. Scarce is the knowledge of Christ that champions His worshiping "body" over the demands of my whimsical tastes.

For this reason, submission in the church has virtually gone by the board. So democratic is Christianity for some, that they commit the damnable folly of assuming that Christ too "receives (his) just powers from the consent of the governed." On the contrary, our Lord Jesus Christ, by means of the work of the Holy Spirit, has erected processes of his own choosing for appointing leaders in his glorious Church. Within any given church tradition, a "received practice" has arisen over time for selecting pastors, shepherds, elders, leaders, etc. When such practices are followed, with faithful attention to wisdom and the influence of the Spirit, the result is Christ-appointed leadership for that body of believers.

Congregationalist approaches to church structure and polity can, indeed, find biblical precedent. However, the capitalization of such structures has seemed to have had a uniquely American bent, which has contributed abominably to the fracturing of the Church in North America. I do not say this to de-legitimatize congregational structures of church polity, but instead to point out the dangers manifested in American history. Perhaps such times as the pre-revolutionary period could tolerate such fracturing, with new churches being spawned for a growing population in the New World. However, with a post-Christian America dying for want of orthodoxy, such fracturing will hasten the death of evangelicalism in the U.S. As a result, no local church can afford the fracturing that fickle congregation members might encourage.

In this way, church music intersects directly with a strong "ecclesiology of the frontier." In few ways can submission to church leaders be more quickly eroded than in the throws of discussion on church music. Because music is so personally enjoyed, it is often regrettably subjected to personal taste. However, what congregants can at times fail to realize is that the music leader is not attempting to facilitate your (2nd person singular) worship experience. He is instead laboring to facilitate our (1st person plural) worship experience. He's not there for "you;" he's there for "us." The old saying remains relevant: it's not about me; it's about we.

This may be true, but American congregationalism has convinced many of us otherwise. Therefore some will "lobby" for their tastes to be met. My growing understanding of Christian ecclesiology is that my "tastes" could not be less relevant. Because no musician can satisfy all tastes, he should not be bound by the tastes of anyone. Rather he should work closely with the church leaders to ensure he executes his office and facilitates musical worship in a manner consistent with church mission, vision and strategy. Congregational lobbyists do not factor into this. The congregant's options are two fold: (1) submit to the leadership direction - for they were appointed by the Spirit over this church, or (2) exit quietly without causing contention. I do not list a third option here of finding another church, for America can ill afford the "lobbyist" infecting another church down the street.

If the submission is not the response of congregant whose tastes differ from what is performed on Sunday, then their instinct may very well be to inflict the bondage of their personal tastes on others. Some are, at times, alarmed to learn that my musical tastes differ so much with most church music. They should not despair of this, for I have learned that my tastes are not relevant on Sunday morning. The glorious Body of Christ, with her Spirit appointed leaders, have decided the manner of music when we gather, and I submit to them as unto Christ. Besides, my leaders don't like my music anyway.

What shall we say then? Should communal worship be held bound by the tyranny of personal tastes? May it never be! Instead let congregants learn something of the great doctrine of the Church, particularly when "the frontier" requires unified submission to leaders. Throughout history, leaders have struggled with the choice to execute dissenters. Even Lord Nelson detested the naval practice of hanging mutineers. However, so severe was the weighty need for unity and submission of the crew at sea, that even Nelson conceded to the "yard arm" for such offenses. Not that I am advocating the physical execution of dissenting lobbyists in church, but such is the need for unity in the Body of Christ, and the vigilant protection leaders must offer the local church from the bondage of individual agendas.

Catch'em Early

In the movie "The Untouchables," Sean Connery delivers the insightful line, "If you're afraid of getting a rotten apple, don't grab one out of the barrel; pick it off the tree." For this reason, those who work in ministries directed at children have historically been justified in finding in it a particularly satisfying calling. Statistics produced by evangelical demographers have demonstrated that the probability rises of someone accepting Christ as their savior, and developing as a believer if they're converted when still young. This by no means constitutes a guarantee that children will either be converted who are targeted for ministry, or that they will grow into mature believers later on. Nevertheless, participation in the missio Dei requires that one be focused toward effective and strategic impact on the next generation. Catching them early is a highly strategic use of energy in the advancing kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that ministries to children receive the least attention to excellence in a church. This can be due to many factors, but among the most lamentable is the fact that the children cannot offer constructive feedback. Adults will certainly "vote with their feet" if the teacher in their class is sub-par, but children have little recourse. Therefore, perceiving this a less demanding arena, churches channel "volunteers" into this ministry who would never last elsewhere. This amounts to applying our slackest efforts to the most strategic of callings.

This cannot be so among us. At Gateway Fellowship we had better apply the best of ourselves to this important demographic of the Church. For it is this age group that will enact the necessary reforms that the 21st century church needs in western culture. The language of "volunteer" must give way to that of "ministry staff." The arbitrary fact that some leaders are paid to equip the ministry staff does not demand any less professionalism from those on the "front lines" of developing the spiritual maturity of our children. The mandate for leaders to equip, train and empower workers in the gospel applies very strongly to Christ's younger disciples. I pray we are up to the task.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Navel-gazing and the Use of Blogs

The critique of some that introspective blogging can amount to "navel-gazing" is not entirely without merit. Certainly we have all encountered those melancholy brooders that couldn't enjoy moments of levity if their life depended on it. This represents an extreme use of self-discovery to focus merely on personal interests. This person might even go so far as to neglect duties to family and others in favor of going off to "find themselves." However, another extreme is observable all around us as well; that is, the decidedly non-introspective life. Many may experience, but then be guilty of never evaluating their experiences in a healthy way.

This is not new, but has always been true of people. It is human nature to enter into extremes: either to think of self too much, or examine one's self too little. To combat these extremes, church leaders have, throughout history, both maintained personal connections within a community of believers and reflected on their own development in writings and journals (i.e. Augustine's Confessions). Therefore, it has been my aim to both remain transparent within a Christian community, and to also reflect critically on my own experiences in journal form. It has been my understanding that blogs have developed a multitude of purposes. For some, they constitute messages that the bloggers intend for others to read. Still others might be passive information pages allowing friends and loved ones to keep up with your life and news.

One use is that of a public "journal" (as opposed to a private one) in which the blogger reflects on life and experiences. They may write in such a way that others could read if they desired, but it is not required. The blogger will write nonetheless. Such is the case here. I use this blog as a sort of public "journal" (as opposed to my private one) that allows others to either reflect on a subject along with me, or at least be aware of how I reflect on a matter. It is not assumed that people must read this (except of those occasions when I admonish my wife to read an entry so that she will know my feelings toward an issue).

Nor do I blog to persuade. In some instances, when I have intended this, I have re-submitted the entry in another form to the public forum (i.e. two articles for Reformation Day in the local newspaper that I wrote last fall started as blog entries here). However, I am not attempting to win arguments through this medium. Therefore, attempts to counter my "argument" in any entry is wasted energy since I was not seeking to enter a debate. Since it is not required that people read this and agree, I do not care if they disagree.

For this reason, I write entries for this blog not in an attempt to broadcast messages to people. There is a significant difference between sending a letter to someone, and allowing them to read your journal. The reader should understand the great differences of those two genres. So the "navel-gazing" will continue, for that is the nature of journals. Though remembering that this is personal introspection made public, one can still use tools like this to develop their own thinking. And any responses to these entries are welcome from those who really know me, for it is in a community of friends (defining that term narrowly) that we all grow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Unclean! Unclean!

In examining the history of the spread of evangelicalism in America, it becomes clear that the Christianity of our culture is defined by "what works." Mark Noll implies this historic trajectory in his book America's God. Instead of being a more "thinking religion" of doctrines, confessions and creeds (characteristic of European Christianity at its healthiest peak), North America has developed a strain of Christianity marked more by feeling and production. The early years of this new republic saw a wave of revulsion to establishmentarian traditions and polity. This trend did not slow throughout the 19th century, nor did the 20th century so much as tap the breaks either. Far from it, so much would Americans retain this distrust of restrictive highchurchmanship, equating ecclesiastical and political freedoms, that JFK's Catholicism would eventually have to be defended to conservative critics.

Another trend of the early republic was ecclesiastical expansionism. Itinerants were encouraged to start as many new churches and study "societies" as they possible could, with the renown of some speakers growing through the newspapers as reports of crowds numbering the thousands hit the front page. The young country was quickly developing the underlying supposition that the Christian God of evangelicalism was the "God" of numbers, expansion and success. Examining these historic threads should not lead one to believe that numbers, expansion and success are wrong. However, Americans developed the uncanny ability to interpret the Great Commission of Matthew 28 in these terms alone.

Therefore, a culture of binding ministry success and Divine blessing together became normative. Preachers learned to gauge God's "blessing" on their ministries by the success they enjoyed through expanding numbers. If, on the contrary, they experienced the opposite, that was interpreted as God withholding blessing. I attend an institution that gives lip service to overcoming this set of assumptions, but then maintains a curriculum for pastoral candidates that keep these assumptions alive and well. The "giants" of present day ministry success are paraded before the student body to inspire their diligent efforts in working for the Lord. The end result is that the vast majority of students carry these "success/blessing" assumptions around in their head.

So when fellow students who know that I have been a pastor for the previous year ask, "How's your church doing?" I know what they're wanting to hear: that it's grown to several hundred, that conversions are weekly, that my salary has risen and that we're needing to add building space. This is not what I can report though. Instead I report the glorious truth: of how God gave us the wisdom to proper diagnose the church's trends, of how the Spirit guided us into a relationship with Gateway Fellowship, and how ministry continues in this way that continues to strengthen the work of the Church in our community. Regardless of these positive aspects of the closing of Woodcreek Bible Church, the look on classmates' faces remains predictable. Their countenance sinks in brooding empathy for their fallen comrade who has suffered through watching the glory depart the temple.

Since blessing and success are so married together in my evangelical sub-culture, the implied sentiment is that I somehow missed out on the blessing. It's reminiscent of the Old Testament cleanliness laws. There were parts of life that, though not necessarily being sin, could render someone ceremonially "unclean." Such things as touching a dead carcass or giving birth to new child could result in ceremonial uncleanness. The remedies were typically simple, but had to be followed in order restore cleanliness and re-enter the camp. If the condition causing uncleanness was not dealt with, the result could be leprosy (this was a generic label given any skin condition that rendered one "unclean"). By the first century though, lepers had to walk about warning people of their condition exclaiming "Unclean! Unclean!" so that people would not come into contact with them, becoming "unclean" themselves.

At times I have felt, on campus, as though I should walk across the quad shouting "Unclean! Unclean!" For when I speak of my supposed lack of ministry success (striking terror in the hearts of the unsuspecting by announcing the closure of a church), the reaction of many is to politely break of the conversation as quickly as possible. I feel as though I need to succeed at something in order to come back into the "camp" and be receive by my sub-community of success/blessing evangelicals. I know that this feeling is not warranted; for God has repeatedly shown me the manner of his leading, how the regular rules of evangelical success-ism are not the legitimate measure. Nevertheless, I struggle to remember that the work of the Church is not so tied to market forces that God is a poor recruiter for his ministerial ranks. Instead, he calls who he calls; and for reasons that seem good to him, he has called me to serve his people in the manner that I do.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Facebook "Friends" and Pseudo Networks

One of the alarming phenomena that I have experienced as it relates to cyberspace is the notion that someone is my "friend" simply because Facebook declares them so. So deluded has our culture become to accept electronic connections as a pseudo-stand in for personal contact that networking web sites would have us believe the list of contacts with thumbnail pics or representative avatars constitutes my actual circle of friends.

This was driven home to me lately when I was clearing out my "friends" list on Facebook. It seemed cluttered with contacts that I will not likely seek out time with, implore their opinion on a matter or send them a physical Christmas card. In fact, some on the list will most likely not accompany me to Starbucks for any occassion to enjoy conversation over coffee. With this in mind, I sought to have my "friends" list better reflect my circle of real friends by deleting a few. The response was swift from a few who must have been notified that they had been dropped. Admonishing me to re-list them as "friends," their "friend" requests carried the annoyed tone of slighted comrades.

I must take issue with the notion that an electronic networking medium must become anything more than a way to stay in touch with those whose physical company I would seek anyway. Why is that because Facebook is electronically able to network two web pages, I must now call the person represented by the other page "my friend." The fact that I do not want to list them that way does not make them my enemy. However, "friend" is a term that I would like to see retain its former meaning describing someone with whom I regular share company or would like to.
For example, while many of the electronic "friends" would never make time to have coffee with me (though they live mere minutes away; nor should they since we have so little in common), I have very dear friends who are not members of Facebook (nor will they likely ever be). If my sister, Gaylene, were a Facebook member, she would certainly be among my "friends" because I desire contact with her though distance restricts this. The same is true for my parents as well.

On the other hand, does any of us imagine a Facebook "friends" renunion at some point? Or perhaps a Facebook "friends" Christmas party? Do we really suppose that the internet's ability to connect our computer screens now so closely approximates actual human contact? Or that the casual networking of personal web pages somehow foreshadows genuine human affection?

I bristle at the thought of maintaining two social networks: one of human flesh and the other of bits and bytes. Nay, instead I will list them as "friends" online whose friendship I maintain with pen and paper, with face to face interaction, with family contact or longing in my soul. I find to keep an online circle of "friends" that does not represent the circle I maintain without Facebook is dishonest.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Now is the Time for Impact

One recurring theme that I have encountered among those in seminary or various aspects of ministerial training is the assumption that their kingdom impact with somehow come once their training is done. I lament this sad sentiment mainly because it fails to account for the myriad opportunities constantly presented to believers throughout life, regardless of what season they are in. The sense of "already, though not yet" is an eschatological notion derived from reflecting on the nature of Christ's kingdom. However, it also has applications to the minister's impact as well. Even though one might be undergoing training for ministry impact, there are a multitude of chances for effective service "already," though the career may "not yet" materialize until the training season is completed.

For example, I have embraced this attitude regarding service in the church during my time attending Dallas Theological Seminary. Though clearly in a season of training in preparation for a ministry career, I've known that plentiful doors for meaningful impact are already open. I simply am not content to wait until conditions are "just right" before God will use me. This has resulted in some marvelous (I've marveled at them) ministry roles and responsibilities during our time in Texas. From formal teaching, to lead pastor and now back in children's ministry, God has not let up.

At Gateway Fellowship, I have the blessed privilege of presenting "The Bright Knight" story to a church once again. It's not just any story that seems to keep the kids interested, it's my story. By this I mean that it conveys my passion for my life's calling as a minister, a communicator and a teacher of God's people. It paints the picture as to why I'm compelled to training people in Christ, to see them grow in the knowledge of his grace and to see them develop into ministers of his mission. Below is a short clip recorded by my friends David and Deb Shelton:

I've preached with passion and resolve before. I've taught with animated conviction. But seldom do I share my soul with an assembled body of God's people like when they hear about how Daniel was called by the King to leave his village, traverse through Slombog Swamp and over the Lonely Plains and pass through the Rocky Ridges to arrive at the Crystal Mountain. Once there, he was to retrieve a backpack full of the Precious Mineral and return with it back to the High Mountain range, so that once he threw the mineral into the High Mountain Lake the poison in the water would be burned away, providing the King's people with pure water to drink. The pure water gives life, after the poisoned water brought death. The King could certainly purify the water himself, for his very touch burns away poison. However, for reasons which seem good to him, he has decided that the water must be purified through the faithful duties of those he commissions for the quest of going out to retrieve the mineral that will burn poison away for a generation.

Whenever the King selects a new knight to perform this quest for their generation, he sends them out with their own supply of pure water (taken straight from the Front Gate Fountain directly in front of the Crystal Tower - the King's castle). The pure water brings life. The pure water has regenerative effects. The newly commissioned knight can see things they couldn't see before, hear new things, has new abilities, new strength and new perception that wasn't part of their previous experience. The pure water even regenerates their skin so that they reflect sunlight and moonlight more than usual. As a result, they stand out when they first leave the royal hall. People can spot them on the street. Neighbors and passerby point them out and stare. The glowing stranger can only mean one thing: the king has commissioned and sent out someone new. Because of this a saying arose in the Valley of Joy through the generations - those fitting the physical description, accompanied by the great horn of commission heard sounding from The Crystal Tower, came to be called The Bright Knight.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Beatnik Women and Virtuous Daughters

I remember from high school the clique of artistic types that seemed to tolerate the existence of nearby humanoids so long as their "groove" was not interrupted. By "groove" I am clearly anachronistically inserting 70's nomenclature into the 80's youth experience. Nevertheless, it works to paint the picture of that select crowd that engaged in the arts while the rest of us lesser evolved bipeds sauntered along with droll concerns about boyfriends, girlfriends, proms and popularity. These high school beatniks operated above such base pursuits as fashion trends, hair styles and attracting the opposite sex. Simply put, the guys might have been attracted to the "deep" women, but the "deep" women found that no men really qualified to deserve their concern. I might have found some of these artistic girls attractive, but would never had asked them out due to intimidation. I just knew they would find me unworthy, shallow and lacking in poetic substance to share their airspace.

For this reason, I'm somewhat encouraged to find my daughter gravitating this way. She's artistic, poetic and attracted to things dramatic or literary. Not that she should slide toward an unbalanced and morose funk that recites depressed verses at smoke-filled coffee houses. On the contrary, my hope is that she will develop and grow into a joyous existence. However, while she is riding the maturity spiral upward into womanhood, let her shine with artistic depth that finds testosterone enriched male simpletons unappealing. Would that young bucks in the rut find my daughter as intimidating as I once found girls of the pen, the poem or the stage production. She may approximate a beatnik flair for a time, but the end result may be a virtuous woman whose standards will not suffer masculine fools.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sex, Romane and Divine Grace

Having just completed an in-dept study of the Song of Songs during a winter course at Dallas Theological Seminary, I can say decisively that the Bible celebrates romance as a legitimate aspect of the human experience. Not only this, but the Song goes a step further in championing the sexual relationship enjoyed within the bonds of marital monogamy. However, throughout history many interpreters and commentators have been uncomfortable with how "earthy" a theme this is for a biblical book. It was assumed that such a humanly-themed book was somehow beneath the higher purposes that biblical works should have. For this reason, many who have examined the Song of Songs concluded that a "higher"meaning must be found in the book that points to more spiritual themes. This is called "allegory."

Instead of interpreting the book from a natural reading of the text, letting its plain sense come out, well meaning theologians have sought to see in the Song "hidden meanings" pertaining to the loving relationship between Christ and the Church. They simply could not get their mind around the notion that God would have inspired writers contribute a book to the Bible that had no loftier message than how great is romance that leads to marital sex. As a result though, they were unwittingly supporting a worldview steeped in a Greek philosophy that values the spiritual far more than the physical. Such neo-Platonism could be taken to the extreme, sliding toward gnosticism (a heresy that denied Christ as God in the flesh, spawning competing views of Christ that were rejected by the mainstream church; i.e. the Gospel of Judas and "The DaVinci Code"). Certainly theologians of the ancient church that sought to interpret the Song of Songs with allegory (even later reformers would follow suit) should not be accused of gnosticism. However, the valuing of the spiritual to the marginalization of the physical aspects of the human experience is a trend that the church has always found it necessary to shew away. This tendency has never gone away. Christians have always struggled with this. We want to escape to the spiritual realm because living for Christ in a physical existence is just plain difficult. We want to be more spiritual than we are physical, hoping that will fix out problems.

One of the problems we create for ourselves with this instinct is forgetting the implications of Christ's humanity. The ancient Church has always confessed that Christ is both fully God and fully human. The Definition of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) sought to codify this. The result has been that Christians must confess that Jesus is no less divine than the Father and the Spirit are, and no less human than we are. One of the implications of confessing Jesus' full humanity then is that human experiences (which do not constitute sinful rebellion) are owned and endorsed for divine purpose. We are to embrace and celebrate human experiences as divinely granted. To the extent it conforms to moral standards revealed in the Scriptures, human and earthly enjoyments are a gift of God for our full-life in Christ. This includes the romance, courtship and intimacy enjoyed by married couples.

Therefore, romance and sex are divine gifts with distinct parameters meant for our enjoyment. Couples are to conform to biblical moral norms, but then fully enjoy one another knowing that God has given them each other. Not only that, but God has given them the ecstasy and adventure of their intimate expressions. For this reason, the Song of Songs must be read naturally, allowing its plain sense to come out so that the reader receives from the sacred pages a celebration of human intimacy. This is a symptom of God's grace, that he calls us to enjoy his gifts within our human experience. Far from encouraging us to deny our humanity, God graciously quickens us express our humanity in the best possible way. This actually redeems our humanity (little wonder considering the humanity of Christ).

The Song of Songs is further evidence of God's grace, wherein he advances a healthy approach to our earthy relationships and experiences. Instead of trying to find a "loftier" or more spiritual meaning behind such texts, we need to thank God for acknowledging and even endorsing our humanity in areas of romance and intimacy through this ancient book. If marriage is a favored analogy of Paul for describing the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5), then it only follows that God, in his grace, would want us to enjoy our marriages to the full.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One Month Fitness Goal

I thought I had more time, so imagine how glad I was that I had already began preparing. Because the goal of entering the Navy as a chaplain would not be reached until this summer, I had assumed that a physical fitness test would be close to that time. Therefore, I had begun preparing to meet the fitness requirements, but without a sense of urgency, thinking there was three months or so left before a test would need to be passed.

Earlier today I received an email from my Lieutenant scheduling my fitness test for one month from now. Running, push ups and sit ups are all included in this test. Most of my friends believe I would pass such an exam easily because of my "apparent" fitness. However, what they fail to realize is that merely being skinny does not make one fit. Consider the anorexic who lacks the energy to perform rigorous tasks. They would be considered no more healthy and fit than the obese curmudgeon. Some fitness can be estimated at a glance, but real healthiness requires measurable benchmarks.

The progression in my application to become a Navy chaplain requires that I meet measurable fitness benchmarks. The minimum goals are (1) running 1.5 miles in 12 minutes, (2) 60 push ups in two minutes and (3) 60 sit ups in two minutes. For those who find such minimums easy, I'd rather not hear about it. I'm finding them challenging. Certainly they are possible, even in a month's time. Nevertheless, the schedule must now change from running 3 times a week to running each morning. In essence, each morning must entail "PT" (physical training) straight out of bed as though some foul-mouthed E-6 "round brown" is screaming in my ear. In this way, the military lifestyle is already creeping into our routine. I've got a month to get ready, and there's not a moment to lose.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Significant Transitions

Within the span of a week I’ve transitioned from pastor of one church to staff of another. The manner in which I relate to the people around me therefore changed considerably. Not that I am put off by the changing dynamics, but in like manner that a tight turn in a jet fighter can tax the body, so also tight turns in life can tax the soul. In the duration of a week, I went:

From pastor to staff member;
From salaried to uncertain about income;
From part time student back to full time student;
From pastoral career to tentative ministry placement;
From confident about calling to careful about my assertions;
From well defined roles to roles in flux.

What degree of change can a person handle all at once?
How much can a family handle?
How does the leader of that family help them negotiate the changes, while coping with those changes himself?

One of the problems plaguing military aircraft design is the degrees of stress the human body can withstand during aerial combat. The tight twists and turns may fall within acceptable parameters for the aircraft’s design strength, but can the pilot endure the assault on his body that will ensue?

Such is the concern when we undergo such significant transitions. Our hope is that God grants the grace to emerge from our twists and turns without “blacking out.”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fighting Back the Wolves

Depression is a pack hunter.

It seldomly sends only one enemy at a time to nip at your heels. Instead it deploys scouts that will distract; then flankers that will harass; then finally attackers that will overpower and immobilize so that the entire pack can tear away and eat your flesh at their leisure. Like a wolf pack whose empty bellies drives them to surround a wayward elk, depression lurks and waits for the right opportunity to have its fill.

This is why I have often called depression an encroachment of the soul. The edges close in, the borders constrict and escape seems more elusive with each passing moment. This can feed upon itself too. When one side closes in, it makes the other side seem closer as well. The natural reaction to this can often be crippling despair.

The following is an example of how this can play out:

-I procrastinated in performing task A, so why do I think I could perform task B?
-Task B is likely beyond me, so why should I think myself deserving of reward C?
-If reward C is unlikely, what is the point of applying effort level D?

Therefore the temptation is to sit on the couch and watch television programs you’re not really interested in to kill time you could be spending on accomplishing your goals, but would rather not get your hopes up if they’re going to be dashed on the rocks of under-achieving reality. The internal conversation that started then with “I’ll never amount to anything, so I might as well sit and watch TV all day,” later ends with “I’m a loser for sitting on my butt and watching TV all day...I’ll never amount to anything.”

The elk sees the wolves approach so it charges a little to the right and to the left, but can’t commit to any direction. The escape routes seem increasingly cut off so the elk spins around in panicking despair. After the first or second wolf has gotten them down, resignation sets in and life slowly passes out of the animal while the pack satisfies their stomach.

For me, the wolves take the form of past failures and under-achievements. They look like prophesies of future disappointment, or current character flaws. The wolves approach and attempt to convince me that efforts toward pending benchmarks are futile. They hiss forth all the ways I fall short from behind their white teeth. The yellow eyes glare into my soul and examine my unworthiness of success. Man, it’s hard to keep track of them all to keep them at bay. How encroaching is the fear that the wolves will get through and paralyze me with fear.

One wolf that holds back and watches, waiting for his turn, is the beast that fears what people will think if they know I don’t have it altogether. This one is particularly conniving, for it succeeds by merely convincing me to fear what others think. As I fight off the wolf pack, I look over my shoulder to make sure the rest of the herd doesn’t see me fighting.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Jogging Together

In his book "His Needs Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage," Willard F. Harley itemized what his research found to be the top five relational needs of men and women in marriage. No surprise to anyone is the realization that the needs of both differed considerably.

For women, the top five list went as follows: (1) Affection, (2) Conversation, (3) Honesty, (4) Financial Support and (5) Family Commitment. I recommend the book for how it expounds each of these needs. Wise men will strive to understand these common needs for women so that they are adept at meeting them. A man's vow to "love, honor and cherish" his wife uttered during the wedding ceremony basically commits him to grow increasingly competent at meeting these needs over the course of their lifetime together.

For the men, the top five list was: (1) Sexual Fulfillment, (2) Recreational Companionship, (3) An Attractive Spouse, (4) Domestic Support and (5) Admiration. Naomi revealed that Harley's analysis of the woman's needs, though painting in broad strokes, was pretty accurate. This was encouraging to me, since I then felt well trained by Harley's book in being not just a better husband in general, but a better husband specifically to Naomi. However, regarding his exposition of the husband's needs, I felt that he nailed it. As I reflected back on the categories with which I've complemented Naomi the most over the course of our marriage, they overlay well with the categories that Harley explains.

There is not room to wax eloquent in this forum on the ways that Naomi has met my needs in the above listed ways. Nor would it be appropriate for me to detail how adept she is at rendering me satisfied as a husband either. However, regarding one of these needs I can mention something here.

This morning we continued a custom that began months ago: exercising together. It was not the result of a New Year's resolution. It was a result of desiring to develop companionship through the exercise we both need. It's been fun going to the gym together, walking together and focusing on our fitness together. Both of us have needed to develop our cardiovascular health much better though, requiring jogging and running some distance. As a result, we've been developing the habit of jogging together. Having measured a 1.5 mile route through our neighborhood, we're determined to use it as a jogging track for enjoying each other. Although we began this practice weeks ago, this morning was a particular blessing.

Jogging the 1.5 mile route seemed like a time of bonding in a special way. Harley is right to list "recreational companionship" as second only to "sexual fulfillment" in the top five. However, I would consider it a close second. It's a mystery, and I cannot explain it well here, but the after-glow produced from a time of jogging together, testing your endurance, reaching the goal, accelerating 100 yards before the finish and keeping pace together has only one rival. When Naomi and I were first married, I thought we would practice martial arts together. It did not come about. Then I thought we might pursue mountaineering together. No luck. Now though, when we run together I feel as though Willard Harley was spot on with his analysis.

What a blessing. What a fulfilling time together.
What a way to enjoy a New Year's morning.