Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving Run

The contents of a rich life consists of experiencing meaningful events. I've said it many times before: the title of my autobiography will be "Certificate of Participation." Being first. Winning. Achieving dominance in a given enterprise is not as important as having a wealth of experiences to draw from to comprise the "act of living." I've never really developed a strong streak of competitiveness. However, years ago I developed "adventure" as a personal value. Thus, new things to do and see holds great appeal; this includes achieving milestones that are never too late to add to one's catalog of meaningful moments.

Because fitness is a universal indicator of our ability to manage ourselves, I've desired a life characterized more by fitness than sloth because the disciplined life can yield greater blessings than the undisciplined existence. Bodily fitness can be achieved through a variety of means. Some use cycling, jogging, hiking, biking, swimming or martial arts. The avenues to fit a life are too numerous to comprehensively list here. Suffice it to say that an active body if better than an inactive one, regardless of the activity chosen with which to remain active. Nevertheless, since inactivity is often more easily achieved than activity, motivation is at a premium. One does not need motivation to do nothing. Motivation is needed to overcome one's propensity for sloth and to sufficiently exercise the body.

What, then, was the motivation to exercise regularly whether or not conditions or comforts cooperated? Simple: a specific goal written on a date.

By signing up for the YMCA Thanksgiving Day "Turkey Dash" well in advance (even paying money!), I had committed myself to a measurable goal on a specific date. Therefore, I had to run on a regular basis in progressive distances to make sure that the race day goal (5K) was completely doable. However, the achieving of the goal on Thanksgiving was not the greatest value. It was was whole experience of people out for this community event, with 2,000 other runners in the neighborhood. It was a rewarding experience, and I felt enriched for having participated. Singing up for a couple of these each year will keep me motivated to maintain a fit body the rest of the time. But the chief value in these is in being with so many people for a fun community event. Again, my "certificate of participation" will be the prize of a full life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Abusive Power

I yelled at my daughter the other day...
...because I could.

Why could I? Because she's the daughter, and I'm the father, and that gives me power. Is it wrong that I have that power? No. The benefits of parents having the authority to exercise their office are too numerous to list here. However, that same power that the authority bestows can be used destructively... and I did.

I apologized later, but the moment had been lost already. Did she forgive me for abusing power like that? Likely. She's that kind of person. But I'm left with the sick feeling in my stomach that knows such abuse is always there waiting to face. I wouldn't yell at an adult like that. Why would I raise my voice at my child that way? Because there's seemingly no immediate consequences for doing so. I can get away with it because my children have no recourse; except maybe to lost respect little by little for the pathetic specimen before them who lacks the self-control they will one day admire in someone else.

God help my children to grow up into better, more well adjusted people than can be accounted for from their interaction with me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reformation Week 2010

Of all the holidays that enjoy a place in the Christian calendar, among the most understated must be the one packaged and prepared for believers to celebrate God's correcting providence when the Church has wandered into error. Indeed she has wandered from time to time, and as a loving Father and Good Shepherd, God in his wisdom has moved her to cast off fanciful inventions and harmful speculations, returning to faithful orthodoxy. Such was the case when, on October 31st, 1517 a young Augustinian monk in Wittenberg, Germany took the bold move to nail a list of topics for debate to the door of the town church. Each thesis (or point of debate) represented an area of conviction where the Church seemed in need of correction; needing to return to the plain teaching of Holy Scripture as it had been understood by more ancient church fathers. Devoutly catholic, Martin Luther's clear intent was not that the Church should experience rifts and divisions, but that she should reform, and return to faithful and orthodox doctrine and practice - as one spotless and holy "Bride."

But human nature being what it is, there were diverse and varied responses to this bold critique of the Roman Catholic church at the time. Within a century of its humble beginnings, the Protestant movement (those "protesting" Roman Catholic authority in various ways) saw a fracturing of the Church on continental Europe into factions that no only persist to this day, but have themselves splintered into innumerable subsections. The body of Christ has indeed experienced great trauma in the West. Nevertheless, this tragedy can, by no means, negate the necessity of setting aside deviations from ancient biblical orthodoxy that erode the Church's faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Inappropriate responses to the Reformation can be observed in how many seek to reinvent the church according to popular business models and entrepreneurial instincts. The Anglican Church took the wise path of simply casting off Roman inventions that were not defensible from Scripture or supported by Church Fathers in the first millennium, but saw no need to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." Nevertheless, difficult as it may seem; painful as it may prove; the Church must reform when necessary, and remain thankful to God for leading her to do so.

Thus Reformation Day is, (1) a commemoration of God's providence in reforming the Church at a critical moment in history, (2) a celebration of the God who reforms us - not leaving us to languish in error, and (3) an anticipation that he will faithfully continue this work until the return of Jesus Christ. Paul assures the Philippian church, "For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:6). Reformation Day offers a superb opportunity to (1) look back at what God has graciously done, (2) look around at how he shows grace to us now, and (3) look forward at his grace will sustain and preserve us in the future - as is the case with all other celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Birthdays, Anniversaries, etc.

For this reason, we rightly take this week leading up to Reformation Day (October 31st) as a time to reflect on our own need for semper reformanda ("always reforming"). What erroneous assumptions regarding God and his work have I picked up over time that need correcting? How do I contribute to the Church's faithfulness to time-honored and biblical truth? Are my instincts that she should reform intact rather than split further asunder?

In addition to these points of meditation, it is also appropriate to make of this a joyous and festive occasion that celebrates God's reforming work in us. Blowout parties and fun-filled gatherings should mark the Church at this time. Mine certainly is going to party over it. I recommend that yours does too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Baseball Gloves and Cobwebs

I recently had an episode that was very, very humbling as a father. Though there were no witnesses, it was still one of the most embarrassing moments in my recent history. I may have been the only one to perceive it at the time, still I swore I heard a collective sigh escape from even the surrounding furniture in the room. Perhaps it was just as well that no one was around to offer absolution; no one to dilute the sense of secret shame.

The exchange started out innocent enough. I turned to my youngest son and asked if he would like to go outside and play catch. It had been some time since I had thrown the baseball with him, and the spontaneously open afternoon before me left ample time to resurrect that practice (I couldn't recall the last time we had played catch). He said that he would like to throw the baseball with me, but then added that he didn't know where his glove was.

Now at this point it's important to remember how normative it is for young boys to sleep with their baseball gloves under their pillow. Such vital equipment is practically an extension of their body. You might sooner ask a policeman where they have misplaced their firearm than ask a little boy where their sports gear has disappeared to. Nevertheless, the eleven year old male in front of me didn't know where his glove was, and as a result I began to shrink inside.

"Go check in your room," I commanded. "It's got to be in there." To this he responded by immediately excavating through his bedroom rubble. After three to five minutes he emerged empty-handed. This was getting less pleasing by the moment. The next phase was obviously to check in the garage. I couldn't believe I was directing him to search for his baseball glove in the garage, but at this point I was determined that this would end with us play catch if I had to buy him a new one.

Dutifully, he ventured into the wilderness of our stored belongings to seek out the wayward mitt. I could hear my son rummaging through boxes and tools, around bicycles, rakes and shelves. He came back with something in his hands, presented it to me and asked, "Is this it?" To my horror he held in his little palms an unused baseball glove. Still retaining its original rigidity, the basket was even stuck spread open. I looked down and saw that the palm of the glove had collected cobwebs.

I swear I am NOT making this up. COBWEBS!

To say that I took the image of this personally is an exercise in understatement. Instead of having a baseball glove worn and weathered from frequent use playing catch with his brother or his father, my son had a glove filled with cobwebs languishing out in the garage. My paternal instincts had been subjected to a "pass/fail test" and come up short. It was painful.

Walking outside, I grasped the baseball intensely, feeling its stitches dig into my palm. "OK, let's go play catch," I whimsically added, trying to shrug off my shame.

"I'm not sure I know how," he sheepishly countered. Really kid. Do you have to twist the knife in my heart THAT much?

"We'll figure it out," I assured him. We started pretty close, tossing the ball lightly. Slowly we bravely moved away from each other so that the throws could become more powerful and the catches more difficult. With each subsequent catch and throw he seemed to grow in stature and pride. Though it was a delight to witness him exult in the new skills developed with his father, it did not absolve me from the guilt of time lost up until now. The image of a baseball mitt covered in cobwebs is burned into my brain. Not only did that event leave me with a resolve to never again be confronted with that type of neglect, but perhaps my humiliating moment, confessed here, will be beneficially instructive to some other father that has just gotten too damn busy. By God's grace and with his help, we will keep the cobwebs out of the baseball gloves.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Deadly Sins: Pride

Among the oldest and most deadly of sins (considered by some to be the sin from which all others spring) is destructive pride. It is the attitude of superiority that renders the proud quite above all influence from outside sources. I've had the unfortunate opportunity to watch some lives simply implode because pride kept them from ever thinking that self-evaluation was appropriate, thus submitting themselves to healthy wisdom. Even when confronted with pending catastrophe, the proud will maintain that all others have unreasonably collaborated on their doom. They will debate, and haggle and negotiate the terms of their situation; but never once will they entertain the notion of submitting to wisdom regarding their specific situation.

Having witnessed the proud follow their foolish path, and even having experienced it myself before, is what led me to once codify:

Pride is the path of destruction.
Pride leads to defiance.
Defiance leads to rebellion.
Rebellion leads to blindness and death.

The wide swath of debris left behind as stubborn hubris traverses through a household is a wonder of nature. Not all people deserve the relational, financial or emotional (or sometimes even physical) carnage wrought upon them; but sometimes one "sows wheat and reaps a harvest of it." Their life is a fitting lesson to the rest of us that must learn the key principles they have collided with. It's tragic, but instructive.

I dare not develop the pride that thinks myself above learning such lessons or susceptible to such folly. The correct response is not to gloat and think, "You may have fallen into such folly, but I would not." Instead the appropriate response to think, "But for God's grace, I too could welcome such calamity upon myself as well." The antidote to destructive pride is submission to the wise - the wise that offer wisdom in the Church, from the position of faith. If the fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom, then the folly the leads to self-destruction must have started with something else - with no humble "fear of the Lord" rendering one teachable.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why I Torture my Kids

My kids are not having a fun childhood.

I can only image how they must view their home experience in light of all their friends whose parents are much easier on them. Normal households probably don't require as much reading, as much work, as much discipline and as much thinking as ours does. Growing up in our house is likely not the pleasing experience that they hear about at school or from peers in other places. In my more reflective moments, I feel sorry for them.

My poor children... It seems their dad is never satisfied with how much they have read, how clean their room is, how fast they're growing up or how mature they act in public. I come home everyday and ask "What are you reading?" in a transparent attempt to make them 'bloom' sooner than I did. As the "patron saint of late bloomers," I know first hand the challenges accrued by an atrophied instinct to learn. There are so many ways in which I wish for my children a better path of development than I stumbled through. For this reason, I likely have an obsession with them learning at the front end, many lessons that I required life-pain to learn by now. It's unfair and, frankly, kinda mean.

However, as I examine the trajectory of culture, and the world as it was when I was their age, there appears fewer ambient voices calling for them to be strong people of character than there were when I was young. The moral compasses wielded by school teachers when I was in high school are virtually absent from my kids' experience. Television has degenerated as well, with shows extolling virtue and wisdom airing mainly during rerun marathons. It seems that parents have less help from the surrounding culture to grow children into responsible, strong and faithful adults than they did just a generation ago. This does not make it impossible to parent in today's American society, it just seems that to raise children as well as parents of yesteryear did, one must simply work harder than they did.

Working harder (and smarter) as a parent translates into being even more engaged in the church than parents a generation ago felt was necessary; to performing spiritual leadership in the home more than our parents did; to make the home more of a classroom; to being more attuned to children's needs and developmental stages; to taking even more advantage of the teachable moments to connect with kids around important principles. It simply requires greater commitment, competence and concentration from parents today to be as effective at developing the people in their home than was required of parents generations ago when the culture was more helpful. Some acknowledge this and retreat into the Christian subculture, avoiding as much contact with the outside world as possible. Our philosophy has, instead, been to simply take it to the next level so our children can "take the culture by storm."

Our decision has not been easy on our children though. They'd have likely had an easier existence had my wife and I simply resigned ourselves to developing average offspring. The temptation to revert to that is ever present. However, we've received reports that our philosophy is yielding promising results. Others that provide a positive report about our children only encourages us that all this hard work is having a positive effect. My poor children; this does not help them.

When I wake them up at 5:30 am twice a week for "morning PT" (physical training), they feel the full brunt of this philosophy. When we run a mile and a half on the dark, quiet streets I use that opportunity to share thoughts and principles of life with them. It's a special time of influence with them to offer fatherly insights while we struggle and sweat together. Moments like this are more difficult than most "reasonable" fathers might put their kids through; but we're not trying to produce children like most are. We are attempting to develop these children into adults that will be decidedly unlike most - with greater endurance, leadership instincts, character, wisdom and faith than their peers. Such times must seem like torture to my poor children. The average teenager would escape into an iPod to weather such moments of intensive interaction. However, we are not attempting to produce average teenagers either.

My poor children... I 'torture' them by assigning more reading than their school does. I 'torture' them by implementing strange family traditions that differ from the surrounding culture. I 'torture' them by giving all those 'pep talks' while running in the morning. I 'torture' them by helping them develop goals and aspirations that will require more work and excellence from them than perhaps they realize. I 'torture' them making them learn more, get stronger, think longer and mature faster than they would choose on their own.

My children are not having a fun childhood. They have a father that thinks they can grow up to be amazing people, and is working toward that end. I hope they one day make enough money to afford all the therapy. But if they don't need the therapy, hopefully they look back and think that while the childhood experience wasn't fun all the time... it was good.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Symbols Mean Things

When worshiping in symbol "rich" service, it behooves the worshiper to look around and take stock of the various images and objects surrounding them designed to inform and influence the worship event. Particularly in a liturgical setting, one should not take the various symbols for granted; on the contrary, it falls to the parishioner to learn of their meaning and have that lesson aid the religious experience. One such symbol was observed regularly some time ago when worshiping at a church where a local Bishop was also the church Rector. Thus, each Sunday saw that Bishop processing into the assembly at the beginning of the service, and then back out again at the conclusion.

Those that attend such a type of church do not need to be reminded of the impressive raiment donned by Bishops during the service. The robe, the mitre and the Shepherd's staff all combine to project the simultaneous images of authority and responsibility. However, if you don't fully know what you're looking at, as has been my case during the past year, they can appear "merely" impressive, not appreciating the meaning of the symbols. Recently, however, I developed a greater appreciation for at least one of those symbols: the Shepherd's crook.

In an episcopal church structure, Bishops are the "shepherds" that delegate some of the pastor duties to the local rector (pastor). Nonetheless, regardless of how much local pastors perform some of the "pastoring," the Bishop apparently knows that responsibility for the "shepherding" falls to him. This was recently demonstrated to me in a powerful way when our church underwent an episode that held the potential to devolve into a tumultuous affair. However, in typical "shepherd" fashion, the Bishop came to offer personal assurance that all would be fine, that pastoral care goes on uninterrupted, and that the Lord is our Shepherd - therefore, we lack nothing (Psalm 23).

Symbols mean things. In this case, the symbol of a Bishop processing into a church service with the shepherd's staff reflects the reality of his responsibility, his responsiveness and the "shepherding" from the Lord offered by his office. I love that symbol. It reminds me that "the Lord is my Shepherd," and because of how the Lord sends us Bishops for pastoral care... "I lack nothing."

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Wounded make Good Warnings

We've all seen it on screen. Some may have even witnessed it first hand. Somehow the group of soldiers suspects a minefield is ahead, and express a collective hesitance and caution. Nevertheless, one among them (sometimes it's the "gung ho" leader) steps out boldly, showing no fear.

What follows is a flash of light...
the ear-splitting sound of the explosion...
the aerosol musk of vaporized flesh and blood...
the unnatural screaming...
and the mangled remains of a formerly proud comrade splayed out on the ground.

Some rush to aid the wounded soldier (if he's still alive). Some click their tongues and say, "We told you to watch out for mines." All see it as confirmation of the dangers that abound. Regardless of whether the wounded man survives, the enemy has effectively taken him out. If he survives, he will no longer be part of the mission. He'll be whisked away for emergency medical attention. Hopefully, he'll adapt well to civilian life, but he won't be back to the mission he was so committed to. Some wounds don't heal. Legs don't grow back. No prosthetic yet invented can reinstate a soldier whose body was shattered by a careless moment.

I am speaking, of course, regarding leaders in The Church.

The story is far, far too frequent. He knows the dangers. He's heard the warnings over and over again. He may have even witnessed a comrade "step on a mine" before, and the horrific carnage that ensued in the man's professional and personal life. Nevertheless, in a moment of dropping his guard down, off he trots out into a suspicious "field" without regard for the warning signs.


...and in a flash his career as a minister is over. The respect of his peers is vaporized. The trust of his wife and children is gone. His influence in the community vanishes. His credentials are empty. His degrees meaningless. His income cut off. His purpose jettisoned (for the foreseeable future). Those that loved him aren't certain whether to pity him for his weakness or hate him for his betrayal. They'll feel both strongly for quite a while. If he's a repentant Christian, just about the only thing you can say is going for him is that he'll go to Heaven when he dies.

Such is the plight of the Christian minister that succumbs to moral failure while leading in the Church - especially if that "failure" involves infidelity to his wife. The loyalty of the minister to his spouse is a picture of the loyalty of Christ to HIS "Bride" (The Church). If he punts his loyalty to her for a few moments of deceitful ecstasy, people who discover it understandably wonder how faithful they can expect God to be to them. "After all," they reason to themselves, "Where was God here? How could he let this happen?" Some may have their faith considerably shaken by the revelation that their minister has betrayed his spouse and them. The spiritually resilient, at best, will emerge from their pain with a new perspective on how much more faithful God is than man.

As for that once confident "soldier" that now has to adapt to civilian life... Hopefully the once effective minister will be able to make an adequate living selling used cars somewhere in the panhandle. As a Christian, he needs to humbly integrate into a new church somewhere far away, and take private satisfaction in being given the honor of cleaning the bathrooms. All sins are forgivable, but not all sins are reversible. When he submits to a new leader (that also knows his background), forgiveness will take the form of his opportunity to come to the rail, commune with Christ and His body, serving humbly when and where he is directed; but no more leading the charge. After having “blown himself apart” with careless presumption, he should not seek to lead anyone anywhere - and none should follow him.

I've now seen this scenario play out a couple of times with men that I have known. Hopefully, their wounds make for good warnings to me. Far from being the most exemplary "soldier," I've veered too close to the minefield before - spared by a caring buddy that yanked me back and shouted, "What the F@#% is the matter with you?! You wanna blown your legs off?! Pay attention, A**HOLE!!!" How embarrassing to know that among the two possible modes (1. vigilant and 2. careless), I've been one before because I wasn't being the other.

Nevertheless, the wounded make good warnings - for me and for all men.

BOOM!!!! There's goes our buddy. The guys trained in first aid try to help... But there's no getting around it - he's out of the game. We'll keep patrolling our area, watching our corners, knowing that HQ will send another one at some point - but he's done. Hope it works out for him "stateside." We'll remember him for a while... that is until be build new memories with the next leader we get. Everybody's on their guard now. We all walk lightly. Tex tells me that Mac can "smell" a minefield. He's got "point" tonight. We pay attention to him... close attention to him. The wounded make good warnings. Maybe that's a way to look at it. Sucks that Lt. Smith lost both legs like that, but maybe eight or nine of us won't lose ours because we saw it happen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Digging into History

Sunday was my first opportunity to participate in an archaeological excavation. It's one thing to study and read about the material remains left behind by cultures of the past, but in order to be a good archaeologist one has to get out of the library at some point. The net effect was a magical connection with the process that is earned only by digging, sweating and laboring. There is a certain "electricity" that comes with a tactile engagement with the material one studies. Scraping the dirt or holding a piece of glass extracted from the ground builds a sense of "touching history." We're physical beings, and we like to physically interact with the things that fascinate us. For this reason, I could not wait to go to the Bernardo Plantation site, grab a trowel, kneel down and dig into history.

The dig was conducted for both days of last weekend, but I was only able to be present for one of them. Nevertheless, in that one hot August Sunday I most certainly "caught the bug" - as though I hadn't already. No significant finds were extracted from the pit I was working in, and thus invited an apology from the site manager. "I'm sorry your first time out did not produce anything spectacular," was her sympathetic offering. Was she not aware how elated I was to merely be present at the dig site?! What a privilege I found it to actually kneel down and dig our pit to the necessary depth regardless of the finds? I understand the scientific process enough to know that it was helpful to the excavation that our unit was able to identify where things were not. Knowing that no artifacts and structures were evident in our grid helps the site supervisor to better triangulate where things are. Like playing a game of "Battleship," a 'miss' helps the player know better where the ships are, increasing the chances of a 'hit' later on. No 'pegs,' or digging is wasted.

But the site supervisor, well meaning though she might have been, had no idea the number of dreams (since childhood!) that were being fulfilled in the midst of the heat exhaustion, sore muscles and dust. More digging is expected at this site later in the fall. I plan to be there again as much as I can be. Do they all need to know how fulfilled I am to be there? Probably not. I'll just keep it to myself that digging into history in the manner 'feels' like touching destiny in some way (I know that sounds corny, and I don't care).

Friday, August 13, 2010

The House Seems Quiet

I've joke, every year when my kids head off to the grandparents' house for a month, that I begin to miss them about the end of the third week. Well, we're just about there and it's starting to set in. I'm beginning to notice how quiet the house is at night, in the morning and on the weekend. Don't get me wrong... I love my children very much and want them around me as often as possible. I am, however, also enamored with my wife.

Because we had been married such a short time when our children began to arrive, we have not experienced a great deal of that existence that many couple have; that being, freedom to enjoy one another unimpeded by parenting responsibilities. Admittedly, some couple elect to live out this state for too long, later rearing children at an age wherein they're too tired to keep up with them. Other couples live this arrangement far longer than they want to, desiring to have children sooner than they are able. In our case, we may have "attempted" to have our children later, but were unwilling to exercise the only method of birth control proven to have a 100% success rate (i.e. abstinence). Thus it can be argued that we possibly weren't that committed to waiting.

Nevertheless, when we discovered my wife was pregnant with our first child we knew two things: (1) that we were thrilled beyond measure, and (2) we were no longer alone. Thus, ever since we've kept on the lookout for opportunities to be alone for those little breaks here and there. The kids' summer vacation provides just such a break.

Having said that, I am indeed starting to miss the sounds of the boys sparring, my daughter's wit, the endless laughter and the joyful commotion. I enjoy being a father, and that aspect of me goes unexpressed when they're away. My wife and I have one more week to enjoy our time alone in the house, but by next weekend I'll have my nose pressed up against the glass as the kids get off the plane.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Cost of Convictions

Let's face it. Christians in the United States are NOT suffering for their faith in comparison to the plight of the faithful in other countries abroad. Voice of the Martyrs catalogs various regions of the world in which believers truly suffer for maintaining exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ. So it would be unseemly to engage in the laughable exercise of equating the challenges to a believer's confession in America today to the slaughtering of Christians in the Roman Colosseum. Nevertheless, even the believer of the present day, that appreciates any sense of continuity with devout followers of old, has their mind quite made up about the next potential test coming around the corner. They say to themselves, "This test of my loyalty to the Lord is far more benign than others have endured before. How much less understandable would be my compromise now than any they were tempted with back then?"

Nevertheless, although the cost for some convictions today nowhere near meet the "apples and apples" comparison to persecuted Christians elsewhere in the globe or in history, maintaining firm resolve on some issues may very well cost something at some point in the present society. I'm speaking of those social or vocational contacts that expect a level of relativism unachievable for the committed believer in Jesus Christ. It is a lamentable reality that simply being polite, agreeable, gracious and humble often is not enough for those nearby that will not abide a differing opinion. Regardless of how much the Christian has attempted to "live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12:18), their mere stopping at "tolerance" cannot be tolerated. Either they will shed their convictions and fully endorse the deviants around them, or the cost of their convictions will become evident.

What is it about the present headlines in California that raises the ire of so many, particularly the volume of objecting rants from religious circles? Some may ask, "What's the big deal? How does this affect you? Why can't you just let others be?"

The saddened Christian hangs their head in solemn grief over these questions and mutters under their breath, "But I didn't seek you out to offend. You backed me into a corner." There may be all manner of ways the devout attempt to show grace and be a good neighbor, but what one cannot ask them to do is deny their faith. "But I'm not asking them to deny their faith," the advocate of gay marriage will counter, "just to accept my right to live with full societal endorsement as they do in heterosexual marriage." And therein lies the problem; to officially declare, by means of a marriage license, the moral equivalence between heterosexual marriage and homosexual unions is to make the same societal declaration that no god exists that has prescribed these moral norms in the first place. In essence, it is to make law a 'functional atheism' that denies the right of any god (of any type) to dictate morality to which I must conform. It's right because I feel it - goes the logic. While this philosophy has been tolerated by the law up until now, this issue requires the endorsement of the law. Tolerance is simply not enough.

Thus the Christian, who formerly was content to simply be neighborly and agreeable, is left with an impasse. They want to avoid offending those with whom they have developed friendly or professional relationships, but they cannot "retreat" any further. With backs painfully pressed against the wall they declare, "I'm so sorry, but I simply cannot deny the God who has made things as they are. And to deny that God has made the morality upon which society is built is to deny the God who made the morality - for no such 'god' (that will invent new moralities to suit you) exists." So fundamental is this to basic theism that for government to endorse the moral equivalence of homosexuality with a marriage license is for that same government to officially deny God's existence and right to dictate moral norms. To those that find the religious community's objections so puzzling, you'll forgive us if we're not all prepared to declare our collective atheism just yet.

What's more? Endorsement of moral equivalence between GLBT and straight couples is to do away with redemption. For what need of we for redemption if there is no standard from which we have deviated? Furthermore, redemption is rendered meaningless by voiding any Divine power to declare norms which I might be guilty of violating. He cannot declare me redeemed who has no power to first declare me lost. Thus the issue of 'licensing' moral equivalence in marriage is to attempt undercutting the foundations of faith and society that have been in place for millennia. The Christian has stepped politely back for many an issue, but they are now alarmingly brushing against the precipice and know they cannot step back any further.

Therefore, the follower of the God that exists (and there is no other) knows that they must offer the "push back" of vocal objection, also knowing that this slight contrary gesture may cost them something valuable. It will not cost them health, property or their very lives, as occurs in other places and times. It may, however, cost them that opportunity for vocational promotion or the advance of a growing friendship. Some pain, though small in the grand context of history, will nevertheless be felt. There is, indeed, a cost for convictions at some time and in some places. Certainly the "martyrdom complex" has produced many a jerky contrarian, but at some point even the most peace-making Christian will have to say, "I'm sorry. I can't go there. It would deny too much of what I know to be true." For this they know a cost is in store, but they meditate on faithful believers of old and think, "By comparison, this isn't costing me all that much."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To Build or Not to Build a Mosque

The prospect of having a mosque built so closely to "ground zero," the site of the World Trade Center collapse, has many up in arms regarding the apparent Muslim 'gall' of this move. Seemingly a blatant initiative to declare victory over taking that ground, the mosque's nearest spire will no doubt symbolize an Islamic version of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi after the Battle of Iwo Jima. No greater equivalent of "In your face!" could be accomplished, comparable in offense to the United States building a mega-church within the former palace complex of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. No plausible explanation can be advanced that will convince mourners of 9/11 victims to accept this new development without insult. Far from 'building bridges,' the new mosque development is building a symbol of victory and conquest.

Nevertheless, no credible objection can be advanced that will prohibit the building of the mosque either. That a significant measure of the population is aghast at the decision to allow it cannot add up to legal justification for stopping it. The religious freedom enjoyed in the United States cannot be selectively applied (though many will claim that it currently is anyway). Imagine, however, a city counsel publicly denying the building of a synagogue or church simply because enough outrage in the community could be conjured by those not sharing the faith represented by it. Vocal 'contrarians' can be found to oppose any worthy cause as well as unworthy ones. The offended rabble are abundant and ever at the ready when needed. Thus the Constitution rightly restricts the amount of real power the many can exercise against the few. To those that suggest this is a misapplication of the First Amendment, can they not imagine a brood of noisy Congregationalists 'derailing' attempts to build a new Anglican church in the late 18th century?

According to the Constitution, that the building of a new mosque in the shadow of 'ground zero' can be seen as no less than an Islamic war victory cannot be of any legal consequence. Instead, the protections afforded the Muslim under the Constitution are the same for us all - Christian, Jew, etc. How quickly people forget that the proverbial 'pendulum' swings both ways. While I may hope that Christians would have better 'taste' than to build a cathedral on the rubble of the former Bathist headquarters in Iraq, that Baghdad's city planners allowed it would certainly be evidence that they are entering the 21st century with the West.

It is the nature of American civil religion that we have various factions of fervent belief all seeking to convert one another, yet leaving that mission out of the legal process. Church historians may critique this paradigm as having launched the erosion of Christianity in the West, but acknowledge some of its benefits too. In the meantime, an 'a-religious' legal system is the 'bed' we have made, now we have to kneel and pray next to it, before we lie in it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Marking the Date

Seventeen years ago today, I uttered vows of loyalty to my wife that no other earthly entity has ever received, or will ever receive from me. Ever since then the will to demonstrate loyal love to this woman has attached itself to the most basic of human dignities. Such that, in the event I abandon those vows, I will have also set aside among the most primal aspects of what it means to be a man. We rightly hold suspect the word of one that has strayed from the covenant so elementally wrought upon their soul. On the contrary, during at least one conference former college football coach Bill McCartney has quipped, "If you want to know a man's worth, look at his wife's face. Everything he has investing in or withheld from her will be reflected in her countenance" (he speaks credibly from experience).

My experience has been that the beauty of the relationship is heavily reliant on the female influence. That which is enjoyable, pleasing and fulfilling of the human desires for peace, comfort and belonging will emanate from the powers she wields in the home. However, the strength of the relationship seems heavily reliant on him. Not to suggest that women are somehow flaky in comparison, but the fortitude of a marriage interweaves with the manly force of will that makes a good husband stare in the mirror and wonder if a "good man" is looking back at him. It is no mystery that a "good man" quantifies his manliness, in no small part, by the quality of his relationships.

For this reason, many wives lack an understanding of how much they have been entrusted with their husband's ego. Their is simply no displeasure so painful as any she may express in him. In like manner, he is never so affirmed as when she expressed pride in him. Thus a "good man" strives ever onward toward becoming the man she deserves, and she declares his achievements to him. His strength is also made manifest in her glory as well. Has he been a source of energy to her, or merely an outlet for energy she expends? A "good man" revels in the achievements of his wife, and finds in her happiness motivations for native masculinity.

They are opposites...

...and the manner that these compliment one another hearkens back to a primordial 'Garden' in which all was right with the world. Creation functioned in blissful order, enjoying unhindered access to the Creator. No relationship is perfect, but good ones echo a time in which there once was one; a time in which the differences were not causes for contention, but instead causes for communion.

For seventeen years now I have been bound to a "good woman" (I leave it to her to define it), and in marking the date I reflect on the benefits of that bond. They are far too numerous to delineate here, but they are tangible nonetheless. Suffice it to say that in my most cynical moments, when humanity seems in dire straits and a process of de-evolution appears to grip society, my wife gives me hope that such specimens were still being made at this time in history. Would that all potential suitors find a "good woman" as I have, but they won't find as good a woman as I did on this date, in the year of our Lord, 1993.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why NOT to Freak Out

Current news headlines related to the accelerating erosion of American society can leave many that have maintained a healthy tension between orthodox Christianity and national patriotism with a sense of apocalyptic angst. Whether it is the political "tribalism" that acknowledges race as a governing value, the pagan "messianism" that looks to godless public servants for "salvation" or the cultural atheism that seeks to cast off all vestiges of Divine norms, the cause for alarm appears to grow. Some see in these developments evidence that the world is close to its end, yet this supposes that the plight of America is the plight of the world as well. Anthropologists refer to this as "ethnocentrism:" the belief that (quite literally) the world revolves around one's own culture. Most preaching concerning the "end times" is guilty of this. My own culture is going to hell so that must mean that Armageddon is scheduled for next Tuesday at 2:43 pm Pacific Standard Time, so goes the logic. The temptation is great to run screaming for the hills when the lawless enemies of God prevail in numerous levels of civil authority.

But what is it, really, that one fears that is inducing the panicked stampede for the bunker?

Is it that some are seeking to change the definition of marriage? Don't despair. They cannot. That some may declare (loudly even) that the moon has turned to cheese and the Earth has flattened out (again!) does not make it so. Is the fear that the uninformed deviant will be in a teaching position? Teach your children correctly. Is the fear that the deviant will imperil themselves with their folly? The foolish will always be among us. This does not threaten the wise.

Marriage is, at its core, three things:

1. Religiously - it is a sacred union between one man and one woman brought together by God to functionally perpetuate humankind and to theologically reflect his characteristic loyal love (clergy are historically sought to officiate this).

2. Anthropologically - it is a communal, familial and cultural acknowledgment of the union brought about under purpose #1.

3. Civilly - it is a legal recognition of the union enacted first under purpose #1 or (for the religiously diverse society) under purpose #2.

These 'purposes' for marriage are unchangeable. They have always been true since the creation of humankind. Occurring in order of priority and weight, each 'purpose' in the list is subservient to those above it. Thus if one declares themselves married in a manner that does not conform to these in their succession, they have not changed reality simply by voicing their folly. They simply are not married. They have, in fact, changed nothing. It is no more accurate for a homosexual couple (regardless of the legal document they secure) to say they are married than for a heterosexual couple to say so that have never sought ecclesiastic or legal endorsement either. Panic and despair is not warranted, just empathetic grief for those that will destroy themselves thinking that making a thing legal also makes it so. How is it that a country that has murdered millions of infants since 1973, declaring a wide swath of society less human because of their stage in utero, is SUDDENLY falling apart because of one evil judge? How can one justify so promptly freaking out when such cultural decline clearly does not happen over night? Faithful Christians have reason to keep their cool.

But this is tied to something larger... Christians are to maintain a tension between contributing to a healthy present society and remembering that the Church has weathered the rise and fall of many societies before. As Christ's Body, and tasked with spreading the Gospel until all the world kneels in submission to Christ, the Church continues uninterrupted through the ascension and destruction of many of history's most promising cultures. On the one hand, it's possible that (by God's grace) the Church in America might experience a resurgence of orthodox faithfulness and effective influence in leading souls to submit to Christ, thus saving America from galloping fatally over the precipice. On the other hand, it's also possible that (with historical precedent) the Church of America is eventually represented by a faithful remnant that weathered the 'storm' of it's own cultural collapse, while God's grace seemingly facilitated the triumph of the Church elsewhere. In either case, the Church prevails and the "gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (cf. Matt 16:18).

Why should the faithful not 'freak out' over the happenings in American culture now? Because regardless of how lamentable this society's collapse may be, it cannot hinder the forward march of the Church. Shall the glacier despair that weeds have sprouted up in front of it? No. Christians must keep their wits about them, or risk forfeiting opportunities to preserve what and who they can for as long as they have to do it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wisdom plays "Hard to Get"

The wisdom literature of the Bible pictures "Wisdom" as being like a virtuous, yet attractive woman that any red-blooded male should pursue with reckless abandon. She simultaneously both calls out in the street so as to be found and remains hard to find among a thousand. All at once she's the picture of every desire and yet stands in stark contrast to the "easy" slut. She speaks truth that convicts the conscience, yet clearly differs from the contentious nag. She's feminine, but not sultry; romantic, but not trashy; dignified, but not snobby; knowledgable, but not a "know-it-all;" sophisticated, but not "stuck up;" relatable, but not simple; devout, but not judgmental.

Wisdom is the ideal "woman" to pursue above all others.

Yet she is a mysterious and demanding maiden/matriarch. When asked for a date, she may turn down the first, second or even third attempts, yet seems eager to reward the determined "suitor." Casual "come-ons" will be turned down flat, but even the slightest interest shown in sincerity finds an enthusiastic dinner date. Wisdom is tough to figure out. She doesn't conform to most formulas men try to construct. The buttons we push that seemingly work for "wooing" her today may be met with a cold shoulder tomorrow. She's a tough nut to crack.

For this reason, many in our society often abandon the pursuit. Wisdom may stand on the street corner and rightly declare herself the only woman worth your time, but most still choose to wander away dejected because they couldn't figure her out. Saddened that they give up so easily, she entreats, "I'm not difficult... just more complex than the 'Barbie Dolls' you've been dating up to now." Nevertheless, for many, courting a woman of this quality, this renown, this beautiful, this articulate, this industrious, this virtuous and this devout is just too hard for them. They settle for something less, convincing themselves over time that they're happy with what they got.

All around me I see evidence that Wisdom has been bypassed. In political circles, the insights of the country's Founders is ignored in favor of present popular feelings. In relational circles, timeless principles of marriage are ignored in favor of fleeting individual desires. In religious circles, sound principles regarding life's diverse nuances are eclipsed by a simplistic list of arbitrary rules. Those who cannot tell the difference between the negative of 'situational ethics' and the positive of 'firm ethics applied according to the situation' reveal that "Wisdom" was just too intimidating to ask to the prom.

In our own home, people ask what 'method' we have employed in rearing our children. At this point in their life, our children's behavior is pleasing enough that this question arises frequently (Yes, we know this could change anytime; but up to now, they're pretty descent people). It's an awkward question to answer though, because we have never employed a 'system.' Classes for "Love and Logic," "Basic Youth Conflicts" or "Growing Kid's God's Way" never had any appeal to us. Instead, upon learning our first child was fast approaching, we prayed for wisdom; that 'she' would help us observe our children closely, interpret their needs and apply ourselves accordingly; that 'she' would grant us insight regarding those moments with our kids that the other 'systems' will never address or even think to teach about; that 'she' would remain in our home and perform her work shaping my wife and I as she supervised our kids' development. We courted "Wisdom" instead of dating lesser "tarts" of rules, lists and behavioral 'laws' not explicitly given by Divine revelation.

For Wisdom never conflicts with God's law given in Holy Scripture since she is sent from God to give life and rescue from folly. Wisdom knows God's Word on a matter, yet assists in the moment when the application of that Word is not otherwise obvious. Wisdom stands beside the one of innocent ears, bristling at the profanity emitting from the conversation companion and whispers in the ear, "Listen to what they're saying - not just how they're saying it." Wisdom leans in and assures, "There's much to enjoy that is not sin. Consider enjoying more the people you know than the rules you invent." Wisdom is attractive and beautiful, sending tingles down the spine as she utters softly in the ear the secrets of sound judgment. Her words hone one's skills and make the hands bear good fruit. Her influence brings prosperity instead of destruction, dignity instead of debasement, honor instead of shame, life instead of death.

Though it may seem like Wisdom plays "hard to get," she is nonetheless the only 'woman' fully worthy of a man's passion (she is, by far, the finest 'matchmaker' for young people as well as a wife's best friend). Wisdom is clothed in God's glory, perfumed by God's grace, groomed by God's perfection, speaking insights from God's Word. She is none other than the Spirit of God remaining the close companion every young person should be looking as their "first love."

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Right Religion

Evaluating our religious trappings and expressions can be a precarious process that threatens to, in typical vampire fashion, suck the lifeblood out of our meaningful worship moments and gatherings. All the same, evaluation is so vitally necessary precisely because deviating from good practice will forever remain easily instinctive. While I have already broached the subject of praxi fide before, some of that warrants repeating here. Belief and practice are inextricably linked, and both communal and personal expressions of them are wrapped up in what can best be summarized as "religion." I get so tired of the foolish statement often uttered by well-intentioned evangelists, "It's not a religion. It's a relationship." Imagine attempting to apply that type of false dichotomy to marriage, suggesting that a healthy relationship is possible without ANY outward expressions of that relationship manifested in the 'rituals' of quality time, giving gifts, physical touching, words of affirmation or acts of service (borrowing from Gary Chapman's The 5 Love Languages). It's not a choice between a relationship or expressions of relating. It's relating through expressions of a healthy relationship. So it is with our most important relationship - our relationship with God; and practicing a right religion will be symptomatic of a healthy relationship with him.

"Religion" can be defined as: the service and worship of the divine or supernatural through a system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices maintained within a given culture or community. Such a definition is helpful, but leaves us with the notion that if there is indeed a 'received' system "maintained within a given culture of community," it would not only be necessary to identify the various spectra of communal and personal expressions of that "system," but also ways of deviating from that system as well. Thus, in evaluating observable religious practice, two axis can be offered to form a "grid" for 'plotting' religion in relation to a community or culture. A horizontal axis would be the 'normative' vs 'deviant' continuum, and the vertical axis would form the 'official religion' vs 'popular' (or personal) continuum. Click to image to the right to expand it. In this manner, we can identity where a practice falls in relation to 'received' practice in the culture, in relation the religious authorities appointed to facilitate or conduct the religion, or in one's own personal piety. Along with this graphic, some other definitions may also be helpful.

What is meant by these 'types' of religious practice?

Normative religion: adhering to the accepted practice and beliefs received and codified within a given community (i.e. Sacred Scriptures or cultural consensus).

Official religion: practice and beliefs conducted and/or required by authoritative leadership (i.e. priestly or royal figures).

Popular religion: personal piety of the private practitioner influenced by criteria decided upon by the motives and needs of the individual.

Deviant religion: operating outside acceptable normative parameters related to religious thought and ritual.

These categories help us to organize and make sense of the wide diversity of religious expressions evident in ancient Israel, as well as understand how their history offers beneficial lessons for us today. It also helps us to evaluate religion even in our present day with regard to our own Christian context. For example, a popular idea might have arisen among some Christians that differs significantly from what is taught at the official level of professional theologians within a given tradition. Likewise, certain doctrines and practices can be acknowledged as having been 'received' and codified by all Christians everywhere, thus making them the norm from which someone might deviate.

My contention is that any culture's religious expressions fall somewhere into this rubric, but of course in my own case, it is applied specifically to Christianity. Therefore, the 'norms' of Christianity are determined by what the Apostles and church fathers showed to be the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. This creates the normative Christian religion that official leadership is tasked with leading people to follow. At the popular level, it remains the responsibility of each believer to follow the normative religion prescribed by orthodox authorities. It is sobering to realize that leaders can deviate from the accepted norms, and lead others to do so as well. Not only this, but individuals can, at the popular level, deviate from official orthodoxy also. Certainly any pastor might find it disconcerting to discover what superstitions are entertained by those regularly exposed to his preaching (and thus should know better).

For ancient Israel, all of these categories are well represented in their history. Official normative religion is well demonstrated by the orthodox worship conducted in the wilderness Tabernacle or at the dedication of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Yet official deviance is shown through Israelite kings following after the neighboring Canaanite gods and, by virtue of their royal office, leading the rest of the nation to do the same. While normative religion is easy to experience through the popular psalms, hymns and poetry of David, Hannah and others, popular deviance is detectable in the household idols used in the period of the Judges.

The personal ramifications are weighty. Having become confident that authorities over me are leading in and facilitating normative Christian religion, it falls to me to follow it and adhere to those norms at the popular level. It is possible that the leadership could deviate from orthodoxy in some obvious manner (as with the Episcopal Church; ECUSA), thereby forcing me to find new leaders that follow Christian norms. However, so long as my leadership is officially normative, my popular and personal piety must align with it. Some in our culture will champion one's right to choose their religion, but it seems more healthy to exercise that choice to adhere to right religion. After all, it expresses my relationship to God, so there is nothing more important to be right about.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

That's Sacred to Me

Growing up, I heard two contradictory messages from Christian authority figures all around me, though I didn't realize it at the time.

1. God is everywhere and with us all the time. He doesn't need special rituals or spaces to meet with us (as was supposedly the dominant reality of Jewish religion in the Old Testament). "We're not like those Catholics," I was told, "who need rituals, robes and ornate buildings to worship. We don't need all that 'extra' stuff." Buildings, things and job positions aren't particularly "special" to God.

2. "Don't run in church!"... "Don't treat your Bible like that!" ... "Dress in your 'Sunday best'"... "Support your pastor. He's a 'man of God'."

You can see the conflict. There was an overt anti-Catholicism in the Baptist tradition that sought to reject 'elements of the sacred' while intuitively practicing them in many respects. Over the years though, I've come to discover that Protestant traditions rightly maintain this unacknowledged instinct because it has such deep roots among the populus Dei ("the people of God" for all time). What is necessary is not to deny these 'elements of the sacred,' but instead to plainly identify them, properly engaging them in worshiping the Lord. I offer here five categories of "the sacred" that the people of God naturally use in the lifestyle of worship:

  • Sacred Times
One of the most easily acknowledged of these categories is the notion of specific times 'set apart' to God for worship or his particular use. The 10 Commandments includes this with "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates" (Ex 20:8-10). Thus the notion of sacred time is introduced in the Old Testament, and carries forward into the New Testament as early Christians gathered on Sunday to commemorate the first day of the week when Christ arose from the dead. Therefore, the Christian Sunday replaced the Jewish Saturday ("sabbath") as the day of the week set apart to the Lord specifically to worship him and enjoy his provision.

However, 'sacred time' was, by no means, restricted to merely a day. Sacred holidays (feasts) punctuated the calender to create the occasional party 'to the Lord.' In addition, even times of day were designated for 'morning and evening sacrifice.' Sacred time is setting aside particular amounts of time for worshiping the Lord and enjoying life with him.

  • Sacred Space
Though not listed specifically in the Decalogue, the element of sacred space remains ever present throughout the Bible. Though it's more easily observed in the Old Testament (i.e. Moses removes shoes on 'holy ground,' Jerusalem as God's 'holy city' and the Temple as the 'house' of the Lord), the New Testament makes no effort to counteract this paradigm. The early Church appears to have understood this level of their continuity with the ancient faith of the Israelites, developing healthy appetites for the 'sanctuary' as designated space for communal worship. The "Don't run in church!" admonishment of the Baptist church betrays a heritage beholden to the ancient Church catholic. What's more? The front of the church building differs from the rear of the 'sanctuary' (i.e. auditorium or 'worship center' for mega-churches). Even if horseplay is tolerated among children after service hours, they still are not allowed to rough-house on the stage, around the pulpit or across the communion table. People of faith have an intuitive sense of 'sacred space' that suggests to them, "the Lord communes with me there in a different manner that he does elsewhere."

  • Sacred rites
It is only natural that protocols and procedures are in place for interacting with the Divine that acknowledges their superior place over the worshiper. This acknowledgment is essential to demonstrate reverence and appropriate respect to the deity one believes is being worshiped. Obviously, one can get around this by simply not believing that a deity is present or listening, but this amounts to a functional atheism unacceptable to the devout. Communal worship in the Old Testament is the very model of rites and rituals all crafted to reflect the holiness of the God being approached through the system of sacrifices. Though all of these would not be exactly duplicated in the New Testament, echoes of them are found in such NT admonishments to "do everything in a decent and orderly manner" (1 Cor 14:40) and worship descriptions as "They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching [suggests a creedal confession of faith] and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread [suggests sacramental communion] and to prayer [lit. the prayers]" (Acts 2:42). Even church traditions that claim to be "non-liturgical" demonstrate this principle in how accepted practices naturally emerge as facilitating worship during the gathering of the faithful.

  • Sacred objects
The tradition is long and obvious that God uses stuff as instruments of his presence and power. Whether it is Moses' staff during the Exodus story, the Ark of the Covenant or the hem of Christ's garment through which a woman was healed, objects have been designated by God throughout redemptive history to convey God's 'localized presence.' The fear of overdoing this instinct into a quasi-idolatry should, by no means, retard the tendency to continue what God has instituted in ancient times. If Paul's quotation of Habakkuk that "the righteous by faith will live" suggests a continuity of faith among the Faithful of all time periods (cf. Rom 1:17; Hab 2:4), then God's use of sacred objects to convey his presence among his people is no less appropriate today than it has ever been throughout time. Thus, abusing sacraments in the NT can carry similar consequences to unauthorized contact with the Ark of the Covenant in the OT (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-30; 2 Sam 6:6-7). One appropriately demonstrates reverent care for those objects used for worship today (i.e. Bible, crosses, communion ware, even worship garments) knowing that reverence employed in handling those objects reflects one's reverence before God.

  • Sacred offices
Within a given community, there is always a clear necessity for designated people, set apart and skilled, to facilitate the communal worship rites. This is not merely restricted to the prophets, priests and Levites of ancient Israel. Presbyters, pastors and teachers are listed among the "gifts" God gives to the New Testament covenant community as well. The office of "Apostle" holds special status as the first of Jesus' followers who are trusted with accurately and effectively spreading his message. Thus, it remains necessary for clergy to be ordained by someone that was ordained by someone that was ordained by someone [etc....] ordained by an Apostle and trusted to succeed them ("apostolic succession"). Even now, 'holy men' are consecrated within a given religious community, and recognized as qualified to lead the community in their accepted rites. Being 'set apart' as holding a sacred office, these individuals fulfill an intermediary function, assisting worshipers in connecting with God, reflecting the ultimate and complete manner this function is carried out by Jesus Christ.

These 'elements of the sacred' are clearly evident in the Biblical record, and are reflected in modern Christian practice as well. The most legitimate Christian practices embrace this heritage and seek to maintain the healthy intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In addition, we have not even addressed here the concept of 'scared people,' that renders the populus Dei as the official residence of the living God (sacred space), with a lifespan dedicated to God (sacred time), who is his instrument of presence and power (sacred objects), who are invited into his courtly presence through royal protocols (sacred rites) and must bear his image and represent him to the world (sacred office). This notion of sacred people would thus render all sin a defilement of the sacred.

I grew up in a tradition that offered contradictory messages about 'the sacred.' I now operate in a tradition that maintains better harmony regarding these. In my opinion, all Christians would benefit greatly from acknowledging their instincts toward the sacred as given by God, and that those instincts, while needing parameters and direction from Holy Scripture and the wisely authoritative fellowship of the Church, are ignored at our own peril.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Run in the Rain

Hurricane "Alex" is primarily south of Houston. In fact, its major presence has been felt where Texas and Mexico share a border. Nevertheless, its influence on the weather extends quite a distance out from its "Eye." As a result, the long reach of this storm has even given Houston a considerable amount of precipitation for a few days (I cannot speak to whether it is more than normal, but the recent downpour has certainly been attributed to the reach of "Alex."). For us, rain is always welcome. There is no tendency in this family to peer out the window and lament that all the fun has been "rained out." No Cat in the Hat will be visiting to cause trouble indoors. There simply is no need to entertain bored people cooped up inside while the water cascades in sheets outside... for we'll likely be out in it anyway.

Water is our "family symbol." This legacy began with my father, Ron Ott, who is a renowned water engineer. Growing up, I always heard about his work developing hydroelectric projects, water collection and diversion systems or water quality and cleanup studies. He was the kind of man that didn't "bring work home" per se, but exposed us so successfully to his profession that we all took pride in his work. I remember wanting to learn the names of various turbine types and the hydrodynamic processes that made water behave this or that way. Water became something we all appreciated and knew about. What's more? We lived on the shore of the Sacramento River. I'd watch its high flow periods, ask about its flood stages and respect its currents. Each summer we spent a week vacation on a houseboat on Lake Shasta, water skiing and swimming from dawn to dusk. Heavy storms were an opportunity to listen intently to the rain beating its excited drum beat on the roof, or check local culverts for unobstructed flow. Water was so heavily integrated into our "family culture" that the logo for my father's engineering firm came to represent more than just his business - it was almost our family crest.

Later on, as I became increasingly aware of the biblical use of water as an analogy for the power, influence and movement of the Holy Spirit, that same family legacy took on spiritual significance. Water was no longer just the family business. It was a means of meditating on God, life and the truths that shape one's thinking. Water facilitates reflection on life, lessons of particular importance and connection to creation for living it out. Water provides a connection to the Earth. It refreshes the land, provides homes for fish and animals, sustains human life and cleanses the landscape. To be surrounded by water is to be surrounded by life. Even at sea, when the water cannot be consumed, it's still teaming with life and creatures of wondrous variety. Streams and tributaries are the arteries of the land. Mountains, valleys, canyons and plains all shape themselves in connection with water.

For these reasons, heavy rain is by no means a deterrent from going outside. On the contrary, it "calls" to me. I hadn't run my normal route in a few days and desired a good jog. The "curtains" of rain outside made it seem like a perfect time to go. Donning my jogging shoes, I left the garage and felt the beads strike my face. It didn't take long before the clothes were drenched, so there was no need to worry about that anymore. One hundred yards into the two mile run I realized that I was a truly loving the whole experience. The iPod remained at home, so only the sounds of the rain served as the "soundtrack" to my exercise. The arms and legs felt every drop striking with exhilarating force. Sheets of water pelted my face, daring me to keep my head up and peering down the road instead of staring down at my feet. Occasional winds moved the water to horizontally hit me from a different angle altogether. The roar of the downpour and the swirling blasts collected into a stereophonic challenge to my resolved, and seemed to yell, "This is too difficult and too uncomfortable for you. You should just walk back to the house now and dry off. This is crazy for you to be out running in this. It can't possibly be enjoyable." In response to the challenge I just smiled wider and plowed ahead.

Being engulfed in the elements of the storm, with the rain beating down upon me, I felt so very much alive. To be physically enveloped in the very legacy of the family and the analogy of the Spirit, all the while feeling the resistance of weather, drove me to glory in the harshness of the environment. "Bring it on!" I screamed in my head. It seemed like such a natural setting - being so intensely resisted by the elements, yet simultaneously being "at home." A powerful and mystical combination, to be sure. The entire moment seemed analogous to other pursuits in life as well, being both unaccommodating and inviting at the same time. In any of those moments I will certainly hearken back to my exhilarating run in the rain, and how marvelous it felt to press on in the face of such meteorological "protest." After all, whatever the clouds sought to throw at me only heightened the sense of legacy, tenacity and destiny. I suspect, because of how therapeutic this was today, I'll likely run in the rain more in the future. I'm sure I'll need it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What's the "Calling" in life?

One of the issues that contributes a great deal to "teen angst" is the concern over "What do you want to be/do when you grow up?" The process of selecting a profession that will be both personally fulfilling and financially sustaining is a daunting task that few high-schoolers are up to. It is, therefore, of little help that so many influential voices surround them regarding what they ought to do with their life. The malaise of messages they imbibe while braving the gauntlet often labeled "finding yourself" are by no means harmonious. Familial opinions may clash with the youth's own internal proddings, or they may echo them. In any case, the young person can by no means ignore the thoughts of their surrounding peers or parents when considering the career path.

Hopefully, all of the hard work of personal discovery pays off as choices are made regarding vocation paths and education strategies. Nevertheless, when engaged in that path, the individual must perceive that it is a course they have chosen. However, the truly autonomous choice is somewhat of a misnomer. Myriad factors come to bear in the process of decision making, and ambient conditions of peer pressure and familial approval cannot be fully discounted. On the contrary, so varied are the influential components on one's choosing of a life course that it remains highly problematic to identify them all. As a result, many do not even attempt to do so. Instead, the kaleidoscope of shades that color their decision are clumped together and summarized with a nebulous label: "calling."

This term ("calling") has come into such popular use that the fact that no one truly knows what they mean when they use it is, by no means, a deterrent from using it with dizzying frequency. It's uses range from the relatively benign compliment "You missed your calling" (given when one supposedly observes exceptional skill demonstrated in another), to the more sinister source of teen-angst "You must discover your calling" (saddling the youngster with the heavy misconception that there might be one thing they can do in life). In any event, "calling" is meant to convey the supposed marrying of aptitude and appetite as regarding one's vocation. It can be used in a comparatively harmless manner, suggesting that one's "calling" should reflect both high aptitude AND high appetite activity, but in religious circles it can take on a very different connotation.

The propensity of the religious sub-culture to "punt" to the work of God as a sort of universal "fudge factor" cannot be overstated. Anything for which I'm unwilling to take the time to explain, I can simply invoke how "God works in mysterious ways" to end the conversation. This instinct is not entire misplaced, for the life of faith acknowledges how frequently God works through seemingly natural processes (also labeled "Providence" in some literature). Nevertheless, this same instinct can be abused to infuse certain inexplicable choices with Divine authority. In few cases is this more evident than with the manner that minsters describe themselves as "called of God." Instead of simply acknowledging the choices they made, and that their aptitude and appetite converged in a ministerial career, the choice to pursue a career in ministry is suggested to have been a response to a "Divine call."

This language can have the positive effect of helping the minister weather tough moments in the career, where setbacks and disappointments can test resolve. However, at the other end of the spectrum, it can have the destructive effect of keeping someone locked into that arena that should not be there. It is one thing for a man to endure hardships in a vocation because he feels "called" to it. It is another matter altogether for a man to remain in a vocation he not well suited for because of the guilt over potentially ignoring his "calling." Thus the whole language of "calling" seems hardly worth it's destructive potential. Surely God is not offended if a man who he "calls" admits that he really wanted to become a minister. But what untold pain ensues when a man that should not be in ministry stays at it because he perceives himself "called by God?"

This misplaced and pious language borrows its terms from Biblical terminology used less than a dozen times in Pauline literature (Greek-kaleo meaning "to urgently invite someone to accept responsibilities for a particular task, implying a new relationship to the one who does the calling — ‘to call, to call to a task.’"). Most often the phrasing of "calling" or "called" referenced God's drawing of someone to salvation through faith in Christ - having little to do with vocation choices or service in the Church. Nevertheless, because the term is found in the Bible, this gives license to use it, in popular religion, to blame my career choices on God more than on my own desires or the influence felt from friends and family.

For years I had labored under the assumption of having been "called" to the ministry. Many education and ecclesiastical choices were made in light of this assumption. However, now, after a considerable time of reflection, it is more plainly evident that the various ambient influences that came to bear should have been better identified. Ministerial choices were made with considerable attention to how family and friends found it laudable and praiseworthy. In an evangelical sub-culture, it is considered that if someone is truly spiritual, they will seek to "devote their life to the service of Christ" (this is code language for pursuing a religious career). As much as I revered my father, there was no one he revered so much as the local pastor. If a young man wanted to pursue a career that pleased that father, the choice was obvious. In addition, having various friends in the evangelical sub-culture who also thought a ministry career to be more respectable than any other pursuit, peer approval also played a role.

Can it be forcefully asserted that God played no role in this? By no means. To the extent that Providence can be credited for life lessons, God is appropriately thanked for life events that have proven beneficial. Was ministerial training and service totally contrary to my desires? Not at all. Indeed for one who enjoys teaching and training others, such aptitudes can find fulfilling expression in many careers (ministry included). But was I "called of God" to ministry? This language seems so meaningless now. I was once quite convinced I was "called," but had also failed to account for the various factors that had influenced my choices. So now, it seems far more responsible to merely assert that one is "called" to be conformed to the image of Christ - and some may choose careers of training other people in that process (which I did for a time).

But that's not good enough for some. It was recently posed to me that if I once was "called," to rebel against that "calling" now is sin. THAT'S SICK! The man that suggested that to me is one who I have some respect for, so I didn't exclaim to him what was blaring in my head at the time ("You pulled that out of thin air!" - censored, of course). What great pressures are heaped upon some for suggesting that their career choice is no less vital to the Church than when Jesus "called" his disciples to follow him. No, it is far more helpful to simply acknowledge one's choices, along with the various influences impacting that decision (Yes, religious zeal is a legitimate influential factor; so long as it is acknowledged as part of one's own choice), rather than to "punt" to the ambiguous language of "calling" that, while shielding one from others questioning the choice, serves to misplace responsibility for the choice. God didn't make you do this. You wanted to. Now admit the various reasons why doing it brought you fulfillment.

For me, Christian ministry brought me fulfillment because I enjoy watching people develop. It gives me pleasure to see people learn, and through that learning be better equipped to advance in their pursuits. In the Christian life, "advancement" means to be more conformed to the image of Christ. But for the same reasons I found fulfillment in ministry, I can easily find it elsewhere in academia as well. It's better to simply admit this than to maintain the unhelpful language of "calling." If a minister I respect speaks of being "called" to the ministry though, I won't try to refute him. I'll simply think to myself, "actually, you pretty much chose to do this. You're good at it. There was an opportunity to do it...and we're all the beneficiaries of your choice." May we all take more responsibility for our choices, identifying the various motives we bring to the table in making our choices, so that, while Providence can be credited for some good choices, God won't be blamed for bad ones.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I'm Proud to be from...

Geographic pride is varied and diverse among people I have met, and I'm not immune to it either. I've spoken before on the manner in which so many of us seem inexplicably "attached" to the land. This can be topographically true, with people self-identifying as a "mountain man" or a "beach bum." However, I have found that can be very regionally true as well. While few may take particular pride in being from "the north" (who knows? Perhaps there are some native Minnesotans I haven't met yet that are very proud of it; "Ya betcha!"), my recent experience has been that being from "The South" holds a peculiar air of honor. While my "southern" friends acknowledge some of the less complimentary legacies of the region, there's still a sort of "geographic loyalty" that doesn't allow the critique to go too far before a hearty "hold on there, pard'ner" brings the conversation back to a friendly tone.

I'm the same way. I'm proud to be from northern California (stress on the "northern.") I always (ALWAYS!) sing along with Hank Williams, Jr. (in that part of his song "A Country Boy Can Survive") when he mentions "north California." People from Texas that don't know where Redding is often ask, "Isn't that in northern California... near San Francisco?" My answer is always swift: "NO! Redding is really in northern California. San Francisco is a 4 hour drive away" (stress on the "4 hours"). "They're not in northern California," I clarify. "We are!" Whenever the news discusses some crazy occurrence happening in California, I always assume it's far away from my beloved homeland.

I'm so pathetic... I get all defensive as well. Someone may say, "Go to such and such a place. The lakes there are beautiful," but I'll quickly counter, "maybe, but not as pretty as Whiskeytown or Shasta." A well meaning acquaintance here in Texas will suggest I visit the "mountains" in west Texas, but I quickly correct, "They're not like the MOUNTAINS in northern California." That type of "geographic loyalty" just comes out of one's speech before you've even had the chance to stop and think about what you're saying. I'm sure some must find it rude at times, or at least shake their heads and think: he's illogically loyal to his home region.

Those in "the South" are no worse than I am. How could I expect them to throw their regional loyalties "under the bus" whenever someone not from there brings up historic episodes related "Jim Crow" laws, the Klan or slavery. It's unreasonable to think that people will shed their homeland identity the moment an "outsider" wants to point out a region's "checkered past." In addition, no region is immune to such critiques, so "the South" should not have to endure a disproportionately negative report. I'm sensitive to this because of recent comments offered from those that both are not from "the South," and don't acknowledge their own attachment to "a land" either.

I find that it is very natural to admit a "regional identity," proudly affirming one's homeland and even listing ways that geography has likely shaped you. By contrast, those that have not explored this may unreasonably question another's defense of their homeland. If someone approaches me with attacks about the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico or the displacement of Indian tribes, I'm likely to interrupt with, "Yeah..yeah. I know about that. But you should hear the great stories of the Gold Rush and Sutter's Mill, and many others that will blow your mind."

I imagine this phenomenon of "regional loyalty" has got to be quite widespread. No doubt such sentiments would arise when conversing with someone imbued with the "wild Alaska spirit," or that was raised in the hills of Tennessee. The Nebraska plains or the Florida beaches much invade the psyche so that someone from there may think of any negative legacies: that's for me to know, but not for you to say. I'm sure the lighthouses of Maine must shape a person just as much as the Colorado Rockies do, and I don't begrudge a New Yorker turning defensive for Lady Liberty anymore than I would the Texan that stands at The Alamo in silence.

There's a way in which people are naturally tied to the land. We're made to work the soil, follow it's seasons and feel it's rhythms. It's not pantheism or a Gaia cult. We're made by the Creator to be in harmony with the creation, and the way the land shapes us should not be surprising. I'm proud to be from northern California, and I glad to meet anyone proud to be from anywhere else too.