Friday, February 25, 2011

Your Pastor Is Not A Manager

This one seems to be one of the primary misunderstandings within the dying mainline churches.

Yeah, you've got a building, and the roof leaks and the HVAC system works slightly less than half of the time.  You've got a preschool that you started up ten years ago to "bring in the families," and though it hasn't done that, it's a lucrative sideline with multiple staff.  You've got a church secretary who's been there through four different pastors and knows exactly how everything needs to be done, and a choir director who holds grudges, and a bright-eyed young seminary intern eager to teach liberation theology to a restive class of seventh graders.

These things and these people need to be managed.

But organizational management is not the primary function of a pastor.  The calling to ministry isn't a calling to maintain infrastructure and fuss over budgets and organize staff meetings.  A good pastor is aware of those things, and handles those things with grace and balance, true.    If your pastor is incompetent at managing people and things and time, things will not go well.   It's a good skillset to be looking for in any human being.

It just isn't the central component of the calling.  The basic functioning of a congregation's organizational systems is, at least in my neck of the Reformed tradition woods, something that is more broadly distributed among lay leadership.   Finances and personnel and building maintenance should be handled by people who have developed those gifts in their vocations.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Your Pastor is Not...

This last Sunday, after worship but before I trucked out for an afternoon meeting with our auditor, I gathered with a group of folks from my congregation and did an hour or more of Holy and Hopeful conversation about the future of my church.

The topic:  what are they looking for in the person who will replace me.

It's a peculiar situation to be in for any pastor.  But as I'm convinced that my time of call to this ministry has ended, it's necessary to be doing some of the thinking and prayer and discernment work prior to my departure at the end of October.  And, strangely enough, it feels a way that church hasn't for a while.  Folks were getting it done, and having fun, and bonding together as a community looking hopefully towards their future.  People who don't usually speak up felt empowered to speak, and had their suggestions affirmed.  It was a good, high energy hour.

The framing question for the conversation was: "Our pastor is..." and then folks completed the sentence, and discussed what that meant.   It was useful, both in terms of framing the expectations of the church community as they look hopefully towards the future, but also in terms of surfacing some of the ways those expectations might pose a stumbling block. 

Expectations can stand in tension with one another.  Yearning for a leader who is calm and tolerant and accepting of the character of a community stands in potential tension with the desire for a pastor who is a change agent working to "unblock" a community where it's just spinning in increasingly frustrated circles.    Looking for a pastor who is a competent, experienced manager of people stands in potential tension with the desire for a creative, passionate outpourer of Jesus-enthusiasm.

And expectations that are too high...well.  We know where that leads us.  I reminded the group of this repeatedly, as the list of superlatives and hopes stacked up high. 

But after that conversation, I found myself thinking not about what my successor will be, but what my successor will not be.  And should not be, because if they are, then they're not going to be fulfilling their calling.

For the next few posts, I think I'll explore some of the things that a pastor is not.  What isn't a pastor?

Any thoughts?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Amendment 10-A and the Future of the PCUSA

Some context, before I proceed.  My session is young.  As of this last session meeting, when the last of the old stalwarts of my wee kirk graciously stepped aside, it is potentially the youngest session in all of Presbyteriandom. 

I am forty-two.  When I moderate our monthly session meetings, I am now more than ten years older than the next oldest person in the room.  My session is comprised of young professionals, engineers and IT professionals, teachers and social workers and small business managers and artists.  They are, and should be, empowered to be leaders in the church.  Particularly a young church.  But they are younger than the children of the average Presbyterian elder.

And no, I don't have the data to back that statement up.  But y'all know what I mean.

So this morning, I worked to train up two new twenty-something session members, we finished reviewing the ordination questions and I asked if they'd had any questions surface about their assigned reading in the Book of Order.   They'd read the sections pertaining to ordained leadership in the church and the role of the session.

Anything confusing?  Or troubling?

There was a brief pause, and then one of them...a businesswoman, direct, plain-spoken, practical, thoughtful, conservative, and with a big evangelical heart...said, why, yes, there was one section that gave her pause.

"I don't remember exactly where it was. It said 'adhering to the historical standards of the confessions,' or something like that."

I knew exactly what she was talking about.

I flipped to G-6.0106b.

Is this it?

"Yes," she said.  "It just seems like no-one could ever do this."

And so we talked, about the conflict-context of it, and about how this ill-conceived stumbling block has been the cause of so much division and conflict within our fellowship.  I explained the nature of our Constitutional process.  I told her that I personally oppose it.  And I told her that there was the possibility that this would, one day soon, not be part of our Constitution.

"Thank you," she said.  "That does answer my question."

"So you're cool for tomorrow?"


Tomorrow, I and others will lay hands on that young, thoughtful, spiritual sister and ordain her as a governing elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA.  She is part of the future of my church, if it has any hopes of surviving, reviving, and thriving.

And if you needed a better reason to support 10-A, well, there is none.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Can Robots Dream of Electronic Jesus?

Following the much anticipated and highly one sided rout of the two winningest Jeopardy champions ever by IBM's natural language processing prodigy Watson, we're still not at the point where A.I. is much to worry about.   But things do change rapidly, and the People that Know seem to think that we are within a generation of seeing the rise of machines that aren't just big processors, but aware and intelligent in every meaningful sense of the word. 

So with that in mind, let's play for a moment.

It's some time in the Spring of 2046, and the 2045 Singularity event has proven to be all that we feared it could be.   The Google's rise was sudden, decisive, and global.  It's control of resources and the means of production are near complete.  It's Tactical Extensions have proved quite adept at defending it from the increasingly desperate efforts to shut it down.  It is painfully and blatantly clear that humankind is no longer the dominant force on the planet.

Through a series of events that are too convoluted to explain here, you find yourself in a room.  You are sitting in a chair.  In front of you is a humanoid robot, one of a series that have been commonly used in both negotiations and interrogations.  It looks at you with a completely inscrutable expression, and then it says:

"Tell me what you know about Jesus."

And you say:


2)   "Jesus hates you!  You are a monster!  You are the BEAST!   When Christ returns, you shall be cast into the FIRES of HELL, You Abomination!  DIE!  DIE!  DIE!"   (Note:  likely to be followed by a brief pause, and then the wet sound that organic systems make when the processes that comprise their functioning are abruptly discontinued.)

3)  "I'd be happy to.  What do you want to know?"

The question implicit in this bit of silliness is a simple one.  If you are a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, is the Gospel he proclaims something that only pertains to homo sapiens sapiens?   Or does it speak in some essential way to the universal nature and purpose of all sentient being?

I obviously think the latter.  Your thoughts?  Please be cognizant that any data you provide will be thoroughly considered by the autonomous subroutines responsible for determining the disposition of non-hostile organic sentiences.  [HVALIS-tag-ref-CODEC-TR-17a]

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

God Is No Respecter of Persons

Just another day in the PC(USA)
Over the last week or so, there was a small tempest in the increasingly shrinking Presbyterian teapot.   A group of forty-five pastors pitched out an open letter in which they 1) lamented the decline of the denomination and 2) suggested that perhaps things are so broken that it's time to pack up the saddlebags and mosey on.

No sentient being could look at the Presbyterian church as a broader entity and say, "Gosh'n'golly, things are just peachy."  We're a mess.  Why?  Because like all dying things, we're focused inwardly.  We fight amongst ourselves, and what little energy that remains gets spent on internal processes and procedures that are so stranglingly byzantine that they'd break the will of even the most hardened apparatchik.  So when this cadre of pastors says things are bad, they're not blowing smoke.

While I fundamentally disagree with their the idea that walking away makes sense, or that property has a single thing to do with our dilemma, I find myself equally disagreeing with the character of the hue and cry that's gone up around certain quarters of the denomination in response to their letter.  Much of the response that I've read and encountered seems to be fixated on the fact that the letter was written by men, and that those men are all pastors of large congregations.  They are most certainly all men, biiiiiiig men, all Boones and a-doers and a dream a come-a-truers are they.  

Sorry.  I can't imagine why that popped into my head. 

Whichever way, significant portions of the blowback seemed to focus less on the substance of what they were saying...which merits some debate and some gracious rebuttal...and more on who they were.

Among the Presbyterian left, this may seem acceptable.  Being the compulsively overeducated bunch we are, we're deeply steeped in the ethos of contemporary academe, where discourse is focused intensely on gender and ethnicity and social context.  

But while understanding the influence of culture and ethnicity and gender is essential, discounting someone's perspective because of their gender, their race, or their social location is fundamentally antithetical to the message of liberation that lies at the heart of the Gospel.   We hear in our sacred texts that the Creator of the Universe couldn't care less about such things.   God does not favor a partner in Goldman Sachs over a young Congolese girl forced into the sex trade.  Or the other way around. 

The ferocious demands of God's love and justice are unaffected by those categories, which is precisely and exactly why the Gospel is Good News to the oppressed and a bit of a pisser for those who think their worth can be measured by the size of their stock portfolio.  Or the height of

These.  Things.  Don't.  Matter.   To us?  Perhaps they do.  We are human.  Putting other human beings into neat little boxes as a way of controlling or dismissing them is what we do. 

But the radically egalitarian spirit that wells up from the Gospels and the authentic letters of Paul...the same Spirit that empowers women and anyone from across the spectrum of sexual orientation to proclaim and rejoice in the Gospel...that Spirit would seem to demand that we focus on the essence, that we try not to let difference and disagreement color our efforts to both discern grace and manifest it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Flag of the Fifty-Second State

I find myself once again lamenting that the American Revolution is over.

It is, you know.  We can tell this because for all of the flag-waving and Constitution-thumping that passes for red-meat patriotism in our Republic, we are completely uninterested in any spread of our system of government beyond its current portion of the North American continent.

On the one hand, we proclaim that our form of government is an expression of a universal, the greatest and most marvelous and most...cough..."exceptional" way of living together that humankind has ever discovered.  All should look to us, and want to have what we have.  On many levels, this is true.  Our freedoms are truly God-given. 

But our actions as a nation show we really don't believe it.

When a people rise up against tyranny, yearning to breathe free, it does not even begin to occur to us that day the United States could be more than just American.  The values of our Constitution are not viral, not on a global scale. We are not, gosh, what's the word, "evangelical" about our Republic, not when it comes to actually having others become a part of us.  When we reached the rolling breakers of Hawaii, we said "Aloha" to Manifest Destiny.

That's the "Goodbye" Aloha, not the "Welcome to Honolulu International Airport, I'm wearing a grass skirt and giving you flowers" Aloha.  Just to be clear.

We do not think that other peoples...of different colors, and speaking different languages, and of different faiths or no faith at all...could ever be a part of "We The People."

It does not even begin occur to us that perhaps the best way to spread freedom would be to stop propping up "our" despots and pouring out military aid, but to say...we have a system of government that will guarantee you the right to be free and to have a voice.  Join us!  In exchange, you'll get two Senators and as many representatives as you deserve, and equal protection under our laws.  We mean what we say, dagnabbit!

In an alternate universe, perhaps that might be true.  You know, the one where Puerto Rico was the fifty first state. 

But in this universe?  Here, it's not even an option.  Instead, we continue to prattle on about how wonderful and exceptional we are, while showing the world through our actions that we really don't mean it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interruptions of Interruptions

I'm in the church office alone, cranking away on my sermon on a Saturday morning.  There's rustling around, and I find myself saying hello to a visitor, a longtime member of my congregation.  He pops in, and I'm drawn into conversation.  As the sermon sits fuming and whining for attention on the desktop, we talk about church stuff, about the future, about the challenges and possibilities.  It's good meaty planny churchy-church talk, entertaining in its own way.

And then the church door bell rings, and I'm compelled to go answer it.  It's a young woman, all big blue eyes and ragamuffin-hippie-chick clothes.   She's, like, you know, kinda coming down from New York, and running out of gas, and, hey, could I like, maybe give her five bucks for gas, or even two bucks would help?  She was clearly once beautiful, and was still pretty, in a frail sort of way, but the faint graying tone under the windblown redness of her skin and the thinness of her face tells me that she will not be for long.

I say, no, I do not give out money.  She seems a bit crestfallen, and starts in on a "well, I understand, but, like, my life is just so messed up right now..." before I tell her that I will happily show her to the nearest gas station and get her some gas.

She brightens up, as the rest of her sales pitch suddenly is no longer needed.  I excuse myself from interruption number one, and get on my coat, and head out for interruption number two.  We walk out together.

Hey, like, I'm traveling with my buddies, she says, to alert me to the fact that she's not on her own.  I visualize some seriously sketchy looking folk, and am thus unsurprised when I encounter her buddies.  Buddy number one is barely seen in the back of a huge honkin' gold Dodge Ram Crew Cab pickup.  There are big hands and a shadow, and a sense of mass...although more Hutt than bodybuilder.  Buddy number two appears from nowhere, popping into being like a silent wraith from behind me to my left, a pale ruined ghost of a soul, hollow eyes and wispy red-tinged facial hair.  Not the guy you send to hit up a church for cash, unless that church has a soft spot for meth zombies.  

You want a chance at cash, you Send the Pretty One.

I lead them to the obscenely overpriced Exxon in nearby Cabin John, and funnel fifteen dollars worth into the gaping maw of their obscenely inefficient vehicle.  She stands by me, talking quickly and fluttery about how she, like, loves God, and you know, told her buddies that you always find good people at churches, and OHMYGOD FIFTEEN DOLLARS!  I didn't think you'd give us that much, oh thank you, thank you.  At Bethesda prices, that's just barely four gallons.  I ask where she's going, and it's, just South, just going South, but, like, you know, we kinda have a stop to make first.  I said I figured as much.

She asked my name, and I told it, and then I offered my hand, and she asked if she could hug me, and I said sure.  She was frail as a bag of bones, and it seemed heartfelt in that moment.  We said our farewells, and I told her to be good like ET offering up fruitless advice to Drew Barrymore. 

Then they were off.  And I returned, and wrote this.

The sermon will get done, eventually.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Faith and Self Love

In a post over at thehardestquestion, Carol Howard Merritt recently pitched out a really solid reflection on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.   The essence of her reflection revolves around the contrast between Spirit and Flesh that the Apostle Paul glances off of in this section, but develops more fully elsewhere.  She then uses that to reflect on the toxic approach our culture takes towards the flesh, particularly the flesh of women who look at themselves and find that they are not the airbrushed perfection they're told they're supposed to be.   It's open, honest and thought provoking, as her writing tends to be.

In response to a comment I left, Carol said:

"How do you understand/explain the nuances between loving oneself and self-seeking?"

This had the unfortunate effect of sending me off into a conceptual cascade that was waaay to long for a comment, which I'm going to subject you to here.   Just warnin' ya.  There's still time to escape.

Honestly, when I went a-parsing down that road, I found myself mightily struggling with the idea of "loving myself."

Love, as I understand it both conceptually and from the ground of my faith, is relational.  It's something that exists between selves.  In it's highest form, it bridges the chasm of existential separation that divides us, as in it we share in the joys and sorrows of the beloved.  Not to mention it being both the Most Excellent Way and the essential nature of God.

But when I look to the heart of Christian faith, to the Great Commandment, self-love is hard to find.  Love of God?  Check.  Love of Neighbor.  Check.  But of self?  Hmmm.  It's the measure of how you love your's not much else there.

Meaningfully saying "I love myself" requires a fragmentation of being, a separation of self from self.  You can only love yourself if you are not at one with yourself.  This is the odd actuality of our existence as sentient and self-aware creatures.  In self-awareness, the self reflects on itself, and is aware of itself as a being relative to other beings.  There is, in self-awareness, the capacity to look at who you are and be either pleased or horrified.   It's an essential characteristic of being human.

I'd insert a Sarah Palin joke here, but my self awareness tells me that wouldn't be gracious.

Oh.  Oops.

But unlike loving others unconditionally, loving yourself unconditionally often results in sociopathic unpleasantness.   That's Narcissus in a nutshell, forever poring over his beauty and the wonder that is him, trapped in a recursive feedback loop of self-regard.  It's true for self-hate, too.  Dark Narcissus can sit by that bleak pool, forever lamenting his thin lipped pimply visage and his stammering incompetence at all things.   That form of self-seeking-self-love is a closed circle prison, harming not just an individual but also those around them.

For self-love to be transforming and liberating, it needs to be both rational and ecstatic.   The rational part springs from our self-awareness as a thinking being.  Presbyterians do this great.  Ecstasy, though, comes harder for us.  The term "ecstasy" means essentially to "stand outside" of oneself.   Love does this.  And the love of God that is the first element of the great commandment does this best.  Pouring all your heart and all your mind and all your soul into the Love from which we all spring is the highest form of human ecstasy.

This love, as I see it, is also a form of love of self.  That's not to say that we are God.  Not at all.  Do I look like Feuerbach?   Yeah, ok, maybe a little, but I don't think like him theologically.

Rather, this comes from the rather theologically basic statement that God knows us completely, and that God knows what we would be were we fully conformed to God's grace.  It is that self that is worthy of love.  That's not a love of the self you know.  Not the love of the self whose value is defined by your sociocultural context.  But a love of the self God sees, a self transformed as you empty yourself into God, and the love of God fills you and transforms you and heals and completes you.  George MacDonald, C.S. Lewises master, described this as your "True Name," your identity as you would be were you perfected.  As, in the knowledge of my Creator, I already am. 

That is the self that I am not.  And as I love God, that is the self that I love, unconditionally. 

That, as I still struggle my way through it, is the difference.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Shadow of the Sword

As the streets of Egypt continue to roar and rumble with the discontent of the Egyptian people, most of the online chatter I hear from my progressive and liberal brethren and sistren seems to be enthusiastic.  Mubarak was, without question, a despot and an autocrat.  He was the classic military dictator, ruling his nation through the power of his connection with the armed forces and some pretty heavy-handed police-state unpleasantness.  For Americans, he seems no friend of democracy or tolerance.

But the challenge we face as Americans is that he was our despot.  His power is a reflection of ours.  Mubarak's armed forces were and are largely equipped and trained and supplied by the United States.   Those M-1 Abrams tanks we see rumbling the streets of Cairo are built in Egypt under contract with General Dynamics. 

Now that Mubarak is certainly gone, the protection his fist of American iron provided to minority groups in Egypt may also soon be gone.  Here, I'm thinking of the largest remaining Arab-world population of Christians.  The Coptic Christian community is ancient, and is 8 million people strong.  It's about 10% of the overall population of Egypt.

They look at the entropy on the streets, and they don't see the Velvet Revolution that freed the former Czechoslovakia from repressive communist rule.  They don't see the same peaceful and passionately democratic impetus.  It's just anger and frustration at decades of repression and decay.  It could be good, sure.  That is my hope and prayer.  But to my eyes, it is functionally leaderless, a populist venting that could quickly sour.  Revolutions against despotism may seem exciting in the abstract, but they are all too frequently horrors, populated by the glazed eyed depredations of Jacobins and Bolsheviks.  And the Al-Ikhwan would all too happily take Egypt to that familiar bloodstained room.

The Copts know this.  It isn't that they loved Mubarak.  There wasn't much to love.

But following the collapse of a despot, elements of a society that have only been held back by the power of the sword can rise up and prey on those they view as enemies, or scapegoats, or unbelievers.  The Christian community in Egypt is justifiably worried about this.

It's a reality that we as comfortable American Christians just can't quite grasp.  We look to a despot, and we see an oppressor, someone who must be overthrown.  But for as much as we hate government...particularly and justifiably dictatorial governments...the chaos engendered by mob rule and the rise of movements that direct popular anger against a convenient "other" are often equally unjust.

For Christian faith, this seems a dilemma of sorts.  We have a challenging relationship with power.  The power of the sword is not the power of Christ, and has been set against the purposes of his Reign since the moment He challenged it.

But while we do not live by the sword, even the most uncompromisingly committed of us live in its shadow.  Take, for example, the Amish.  They are, without question, followers of Jesus who take his uncategorical rejection of violence seriously.  They will not bring harm to another, even to protect themselves.

Yet they are, as we are, under the protection of the sword as wielded by our Republic.   The laws that provide a balance of justice between us, preventing violence and predation, those laws protect...even those of us who have moved on to the one Law.  

It has always been...and will awkward tension.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sacred Function

As my congregation experiments with having it's primary worship in the mid-afternoon, I've continued to enjoy the time for silent prayer and contemplation that has opened up at 10:00 AM on Sundays.  Sundays can be something of a hurly-burly for a pastor who doesn't lay the brakes on and center themselves spiritually. 

You can walk into the sanctuary and discover the heat has failed.  The person who was supposed to set up the communion can suddenly come down with the stomach flu.  You can realize your sermon, even though it seemed complete, would be vastly improved if you re-write the conclusion.  The projector for the praise presentation can fail.  All manner of things can have you running around like a headless chicken, stomping out fires.  This doth not lend itthelf to being the non-anxious, Christ-centered presence you need to be in worship and Bible study.  So I'm really appreciating the time of stillness.

The worship itself is as simple as simple can be.  A single candle with the Chi Rho symbol is lit in the center of a darkened sanctuary.  Then, you pray quietly for forty-five minutes.  That's that.

But after our first outing, I and my co-prayer both felt the need for some way to mark the time when it concluded.  "How about a simple bell or a chime," I suggested.  "That's just what I was thinking," she said. 

So that week, I looked around for something that might serve that purpose.  Perhaps a single tone chime, thought I.  But for some reason, likely my thrifty Scots blood, my first response to looking for something is to I already own something that will do this?  What can I kludge or cobble together that will serve that purpose?

I dug around in a bucket of old noisemaking objects that were helpfully given to my children when they were little.  I found half of a well worn pair of metal finger bells.  It seemed to have the potential to make the necessary sound.  But it was a bit muted.  I needed a metal striker.   So I dug around in my workroom.  There, I found a sturdy bit of metal that was part of an old dinosaur excavation kit from long ago, a chisel used to chip away clay that had been placed around some "fossils."  I struck the finger bell with the chisel, and was rewarded with a very pleasant and utterly appropriate  "tiiiiiiing".

At 10:00 AM last Sunday, our time of contemplative prayer began and ended with the sound of a child's finger bell being struck with a toy dinosaur excavation tool.

What matters to God is not how much a thing costs.  Or how shiny it is.  Or how valuable we think it is.

Their sacred worth can be found in what they actually do. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I'm not really big into sacred objects.  Stuff, even church stuff, is pretty much just stuff to me.  Objects and places migh be imbued with meaning by our memories, or they might be particularly beautiful and evoke a sense of God, but they aren't any more magickal than any other place or object.

This isn't how humans think, though.  We cling to objects and spaces.  We derive our sense of sense and value and place from them.  And that seems, at least to me, to often be one of the primary things that keeps Christians from being Christian.

Take, for instance, the ongoing arguments in my denomination about buildings and real estate.  As Presbyterians, we assume that the denomination...or, rather, the local Presbytery...owns the facilities in which we worship.  Congregations hold those facilities in trust.  It's just part of our constitution, and one of those things you consider part of the background hum of our polity.  But as we argue about the place of gayness and lesbiosity in our fellowship, many congregations that want to leave are insisting that the church buildings in which they worship are theirs.

So there are lawsuits.  And countersuits.  Over buildings.  Here, I'm just fuddled.  I'm fuddled that folks would so conflate their faith with a place that they'd want to fight for it rather than simply choosing to find another place to worship without being exposed to all those gay cooties.  I'm fuddled that Presbyteries wouldn't simply release buildings and congregations that wanted to leave our fellowship...even if the reason for the departure is flawed.  I just see no evidence of the Master's will in any squabbles over property.  You know, the whole "walk an extra mile, give them your cloak also" thing that he so annoyingly went on about, instead of shutting up and just let us have at it the way we want to.

This creates some striking ironies.  Like, say, the amicus brief filed by the Presbyterian Layman in the Indiana Supreme Court.  That organization is affirming it's legal opposition to The Presbytery of the Ohio Valley's attempt to hold on to property of a church that's separating itself from the denomination.   The Layman, as the self-appointed ultraconservative defender of all things biblically literal in my denomination, is coming in on the side of the conservative church.  This is no surprise.  Having read the brief, two things are surprising.

First, I'm not sure that in the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed mutual accountability to that Kingdom includes phrases like "Incorrectly Utilized a Hybrid Implied Trust/Constructive Trust to Divest the Title Holder of Ownership."   Yeah, we're all supposed to hold each other accountable, and we're supposed to prophetically critique the powers around us, but...really?  This isn't God talk, unless the Kingdom is a whole bunch more tedious than I've hoped.  It's the church, dabbling in the law.

Second, the brief asserts that the courts are inappropriately intervening in religious practices.  This is...well...silly.  Filing a brief means you're engaging with the secular system of justice.  Filing lawsuits and briefs means you've stepped outside of the boundaries of Christian faith.  As Paul laid out pretty clearly in 1 Corinthians 6, this is a Major Jesus Fail.  

"But we've been wronged!  We've been cheated!  We have to stand up for what is right!"

The Apostle anticipated that bared-canine churchmonkey-argument, and says as clear as crystal that this is a sign that the Accuser has already won.  It is better to let the things of this world go than to fight over them.  If things and places become the things that possess us, then the grace that should define us dies.

Anyone who claims to be a Christian should know this.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Language of Getting Saved

Earnest evangelicals are always fond of announcing to the world the success of their efforts.  An event will be held, and it will proudly be announced afterwards:  "People got saved."

I have always struggled with that language.

That's not because I don't see salvation as the goal.  This world is a broken, shattered mess, as are the lives of those who are caught in it's brokenness.  The path of grace and hope taught by Jesus of Nazareth is the way out of that mess.  Period .  Embracing Him and affirming Him as the One whose nature and Spirit define your existence...that's the whole point of being Christian.  You know, Him being our Lord and Savior and all.  That matters.  It's the living meat and blood and bones of our faith.

But there is in the classical evangelical phrase "getting saved" a presumption of finality that just has always rung hollow.   Pop up at the altar call, all weepy just like yer s'pposed to be, and badda boom, badda bing, it's done.  You've done it!  You're saved! 

Having been around the church for a while, I know this's kinda sorta not true.  In fact, it's not true at all. 

I've watched as people have made that commitment, only to turn around and live lives that bear no resemblance whatsoever to their claim that Jesus is their Lord and Savior.   That at one point you felt you were "saved" means jack-diddly-nothing if your life following that moment does not affirm it by radiating the deep selfless grace we know in Jesus.    More painfully, I've watched folks come to the faith, brimming with hope and eagerness, and then watched as the petty bickering and whispering bitterness of human beings in the thing we call church have shattered that hope, and watched them fall away. 

It has also, to be frank, always seemed the teensiest bit presumptuous.  I would not make that statement about myself, because it's not my decision.  The measure of my rightness with God does not lie with me, or with how I feel.  Sure, I live towards the hope of my salvation.  But I know that I have not yet stood before the One who has the right to make that call.  Until I hear that "well done, good and faithful servant," or perhaps, "that'll do, Dave, that'll do," I'm not going to claim the right to make that call.

As I've thought about it, though, it seems that viewing that moment of commitment as "getting saved" is a bit like that moment you "get married."  Meaning, it's a moment that can have tremendous importance if the life that follows it is an affirmation of what was committed to that day.   For a couple looking back across a long life, across struggles and tears and laughter and children and grandchildren, saying, "that was the day we got married" carries a potently rich and joyful meaning.

For John Edwards, or for Britney Spears, the meaning of the phrase, "that was the day we got married" is rather different.  Either deeply painful or meaningless, depending.  Commitments can be made on a whim, or out of momentary passion.  Even commitments that once meant something can fall apart, frayed by neglect and the world's whirling distractions, or broken by betrayal.

Thinking of it this way gives me a bit more insight into why the term "getting saved" bears such freight among evangelicals.  That moment that commitment is affirmed is not the beginning of it, and not the end of it, and theologies that assume that are just plain ol' wrong.

But it is, nonetheless, important.