Archive for December, 2011

And Another Thing…

December 18, 2011

Regarding my last post…

…what if more, smaller congregations was not just an accident of circumstance, or a side-effect of an increasingly hostile culture and society?  What if smaller was actually intended?  Not by us, obviously, since we’re steeped in a culture that worships numerics and demographics and the success they are often combined to define.  There is, after all, a bit of a precedent, of sorts.

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of  the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.  Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.'” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
How would small churches act and think and feel differently if they saw their smaller size not simply as an inevitability, but a blessing?  Not as a source of pride, but as a source of confidence?  

What if Bigger Isn’t Better?

December 18, 2011

In a land of shrinking congregational sizes, there are many mainline denominational churches with vibrant histories of ministry that are on the ropes and wondering where they’re going to be in a year, or five years.  Or if they’ll be at all.  

For those congregations, there is a perennial favorite target of their attention and aspiration – mega churches.  Ah, if only we had as many people as they do!  If only we had their budget!  If only we could offer their programs!  If only we were successful like they are!  
Oftentimes the aspiration is attended to with a comforting dose of disdain.  Lacking any real mechanism for achieving the status of a mega-church, it’s easy for a congregation to both aspire to be one while criticizing the ones they idolize.  Sure, they have a lot of people coming, but most of them don’t stick around for very long.  Sure, they offer lots of programs, but they’re not really raising up mature Christians.  Sure, they have thousands of people in attendance, but they don’t give them the Gospel.  
Americans are fixated on size as an indicator of success.  Bigger=better, whether you’re at church or McDonalds.  If something is good, why not SuperSize it?  If a little is working, why not a lot?  We’re always after the proverbial more bang for the buck.
I’ve attempted to challenge this notion.  What if bigger isn’t better?  What if the indication of our faithfulness isn’t how many people are here on a Sunday morning?  Show me where in the New Testament churches are evaluated in terms of how big they are, how many programs they offer, how many satellite campuses they operate?  
Bigger might be better in certain situations.  But it might also not be better in certain situations, and how do you know which is true of you?  As paradoxical as it may sound, perhaps the answer is to do a quick head-count and determine whether or not you’re big.  If you’re big, figure out how to make it work.  If you’re not, don’t obsess about how to be big.  Figure out how to be faithful at whatever your current size is.  But let’s not just be silly about numbers.  There are plenty of ways small groups of people can make big impacts – but it may necessitate them beginning to think like small groups of people, rather than small groups of people attempting to act like big groups of people.
This isn’t defeatism.  It may very well be the essence of faith – doing what you can with what you have been given and leaving the outcomes up to the Holy Spirit.  The results may be very surprising – as may be the time when those results are fully understood.  There are others who seem to think similarly.  
People from bigger and more popular blogs, no less!

Reinventing Life After Death

December 16, 2011

Well, it’s not really reinventing, as though this is a new effort or idea.

A short NPR piece on dignity therapy, an effort to help people facing imminent death by allowing them to author a work about their life.  
It’s called a new treatment, but it’s not very new at all.  Back in the mid 15th century, an immensely popular book was the Ars Moriendi – a treatise on how to die well (from a Christian understanding of things).  There were multiple editions, illustrated and non-illustrated, and it was translated into multiple languages.  
The idea was that death is something to be prepared for.  We all know it’s coming, we just don’t know when.  As such, as Christian Scripture suggests, life is lived with this understanding.  Death is not something shameful to be hidden away, rather it is (or at least was) a very public moment where one might shed light on the meaning of other’s lives by the manner in which one died.  In the process, people surrounding the dying person would also understand better that person – what they valued and treasured.  
That being said, the emphasis was not on the dying person per se, but rather on Christ who was the hope of the dying person.  More important than getting people to understand the dying person, this process stressed pointing others to faith in Jesus Christ by the final witness of the dying person.  
The idea of being able to craft some statement about my life as I approach death has a lot of personal appeal.  It’s the writer in me, perhaps, still hoping to publish something valuable and lasting, and realizing that this might not be a best-seller, but something more private for my family.  But even as I acknowledge the appeal of that process, I understand the importance of the witness of faith.  I’m in no hurry to die, but when I do, I pray that my death will be an opportunity for a final witness of faith, a final exhortation to remain faithful.  Whether my family ultimately understands me or not should, in the final assessment, be a function of their understanding of me in Jesus Christ.  The two shouldn’t be separable, ideally.  
Of course, none of that is taken into account in the NPR article.  Dignity therapy is just that, something solely for the edification of the dying person, solely focused on them.  The ultimate vanity press, quite literally.  The assumption is that since nothing lives on from the dying person in any real way, the illusion of immortality through the written word is a helpful substitute.  However helpful it may be (and I have no doubt that it’s helpful!), what a shallow substitute for the real promise of life after death!
I found it interesting that the article spent a fair amount of time on ‘false’ remembrances.  The example cited seems a rather poor representation of a potential falsehood or reimagining of an event, but does highlight a great deal the possible differences between how people view or deal with a given situation.  It’s interesting that the daughter feels that the mother deliberately misrepresented an event, when perhaps – despite the acknowledge challenges of the event – the mother really viewed the event as she describes it (or fails to describe it).  What is traumatic and difficult for one person is not necessarily so for someone else – one of the challenges of autobiography I would imagine.  

God(s) of Conveniences

December 15, 2011

An interesting op-ed piece this last weekend in the New York Times’ SundayReview section.  

For those unaware, the percentage of Americans who do not associate themselves with any particular religious tradition or denomination is growing, though most of this growing demographic still professes a belief in some sort of higher power.  In other words, they aren’t necessarily religious in the traditional sense of that word, but they aren’t atheists either.  
The author offers two possible suggestions.  The first is that they are avoiding the political associations that often come with official religious affiliation.  If you’re a Protestant, for example, you’re assumed to be Republican-leaning.  Because people dislike this (and younger people more so), they aren’t associating with religious affiliations.
Frankly, I see that as a pretty lame excuse.  While an argument can be made for the postmodern distrust and dislike of any monolithic entity, to attempt to couch the religious issue as a political one is rather feeble.  Fortunately, he offers a more compelling explanation a few paragraphs later.
He talks about how the “Nones” are not concerned with Truth in an objective, eternal sense, and are far more interested in truth as what works.  Is a particular belief comforting in a time of stress?  Then it’s ‘true’ and they’ll incorporate it into their patchwork of faith.  I once had a student tell me, while describing his religious views, that he ‘liked’ the idea of reincarnation, and so believed in it.  As though Truth can be something that is a matter of personal preference and convenience!
But that’s what our young people are being taught today.  Watch their television shows.  Read their literature.  Listen to the increasingly narrow language being demanded by the anti-bullying movement, the heir of the crusade for tolerance, which was itself the offspring of the ridiculous political correctness rage.  If we are not allowed to critique – however politely and respectfully – the assertions and beliefs of others, we are left with the understanding that truth is indeed relative.  Not only is there not ultimate Truth, ultimate Truth must not exist because otherwise the fragile framework of tolerance comes tumbling down.  If Truth exists, not only can I not ignore what my neighbor believes, I am suddenly compelled – not out of self-interest but out of genuine love for my neighbor – to try and share that Truth with them.  
And this is more and more exactly what will not be tolerated.  Believe what you want, so long as you keep it to yourself and don’t let it interfere with real life.  
This is certainly a compelling issue.  But he concludes his essay with a rather interesting tangent.  If the problem is really that we are not teaching Truth in an objective sense any more, leading more and more people to decide that Truth is purely personal and subjective, there  is a clear solution.  Quit teaching relativism.  Admit that we’ve made a terrible error in our zest for reduced social conflict and go back to the idea that Truth has a meaning beyond what I choose to create for it.  But this isn’t the solution that Weiner winds up with.
Rather, he winds up with the idea that if Christians would take themselves a bit less seriously, then they would be more appealing to the Nones.  That idea is echoed in this commentary on the editorial.  This is undoubtedly true, but it’s also fundamentally missing the very critical point he just made about how increasingly people see truth as a relative matter of what makes me feel good or what works personally for how I want to live my life.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Christians could use some lightening up.  I run into example after example – primarily Evangelical Christians outside my own Lutheran tradition – that are crucified on the poor theology of works righteousness.  Who bleed daily to the point of hopelessness because they have been taught by their churches and their Christian motivational speakers and the Christian best-sellers they’re told to read, that their life can be this totally wonderful awesome thing if they just do what it takes to allow it to happen.   Jesus is waiting to pour out his love and fill your life, if you’ll just pray/study/give/meditate/desire enough.  If you just have the heart of Jesus, then Jesus will love you and your life will transform into this beautiful and peaceful place.  
It’s a crock of crap, to be sure, but the more I listen, the more this is what I hear from broken, hurting people who are not being given the Gospel and who are despairing because they’re told the Gospel depends on them.   And if this is what you’re being fed, you’re certainly going to take on a rather dour and sober tone when dealing with yourself and others.  If your every failure and shortcoming is another nail in the coffin of your hopes for a happy and fulfilled life in the love of a God who has sacrificed himself on your behalf, then there’s no room for compassion or understanding or joy.  Only the rigor of relentness effort towards a self-transformation that we never achieve.
So yes, we need to lighten up a bit, which would fundamentally rock the boat of a major section of American Christianity, and frankly, that boat needs rocking.  But this doesn’t solve the dilemma posed by this essay.
Christians who can laugh more will certainly be appealing to more people.  But those people are going to see Christianity as just a smorgasboard of things that may or may not be helpful or convenient for themselves.  They may show up in worship more if it helps them feel good, but you can bet that they’ll quit coming as soon as it doesn’t feel so good, as soon as they feel the bite of the Law demanding not simply their assent but their submission.  As soon as the reality that not all things are equally valid begins to strike home.  
Unless we recognize that a fundamental disjunct exists between what people are taught and learn and hear everywhere else in their lives, and what they might hear in a congregation where the Word of God is more than a self-help book, we’re deceiving ourselves.  If we make the dangerous assumption that sitting in the pew or even giving to the Church equals an understanding (let alone an acceptance) of what that congregation preaches and teaches about the Word of God, we’ll continue to see people come in the front door, drawn by winsome and humorous preachers, but slipping just as quickly out the back door when they realize that no matter how good the jokes are, the preacher really believes what He’s talking about and expects them to as well.  
Christianity is not simply competing for market share, and being more cheerful is not going to address the massive chasm between the subjective realism taught in the public arena and the objective realism that the Bible insists upon.  Our congregations need to be places where these fundamental differences are laid out and clearly articulated, where people who have wandered in because someone suggested they’d like the pastor are confronted with the truth that Truth is not a matter of personal convenience, and that we can respect those around us without agreeing with them and accepting their views on things.  
Christians can and
should be able to laugh at themselves appropriately, but it’s naive to believe that this is going to make much of a difference in and of itself.  

Dawkin’s Defense

December 14, 2011

So I’ve made it through the middle of Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, and the chapter where he lays out his fundamental argument about why belief in God is not only irrational, it is hardly a matter of pure confusion.  Dawkins argues as much to convince agnostics that they needn’t remain on the fence (and indeed, can’t) as he argues to actively woo away Christians.  His premise is that the existence of God is not a statistically even proposition – a 50/50 probability for and against existence.  What he hopes to accomplish is to demonstrate that the statistical likelihood that God does not exist is substantially higher than the odds that He does exist.  And to do so, he wants to turn one of the major arguments of Christian apologists against themselves.  He seems to think that he’s done it, but it eludes me as to how he can honestly think so.

To lower the odds of the possibility of God’s existence, Dawkins utilizes the idea of irreducible complexity (IC).  Succinctly, this proposition asserts that there are many, many examples in the world around us of things that are incredibly complex – such as the human eye.  These examples are too complex to have evolved over time, because if any of the gazillions of complex pieces/parts were removed, the entity would no longer function.  The eye would not see, for example.  The argument is against the natural selection idea that randomly selected mutations that provided benefits were selected for in the breeding process by making their hosts better able to survive and reproduce, thereby passing on the mutation while more inferior genetic arrangements eventually died out.  But if some things are irreducibly complex, then they couldn’t be the result of random mutations because they would have had to have come into existence as a complete package, else there would be no incremental benefit to the hosts along the way.
Dawkins of course disagrees with this critique, and has he own theories about how this argument can be deconstructed – all of them hypothetical but plausible from a certain perspective.  
Dawkins then tweaks this argument to his own purposes.  If IC argues that the existence of life as we know it is so improbable that it demands a creator as an explanation for it, then the Creator must be even more complex than the life he has created – and therefore even less likely of existing. If Christians want to rule out natural selection because of the odds against it, they must rule out the existence of God on the same grounds. 
That’s it.  
If a complex universe requires a complex creator, then the odds of that creator simply existing as is – and particularly existing as the simplest essence in the universe (something that Thomas Aquinas argues for in his Summa Theologica) then the odds are overwhelmingly against the existence of such a God.  God cannot be simple, but rather highly complex in order to create a highly complex creation.  
There are several problems with this.  Most notably, Dawkins argues from creation backwards to the creator, but not in a way that Christianity actually portrays God.  Dawkin’s presumption is that, since in creation around us, complex things must come (by the definition of evolution and natural selection) from simpler things, then anything capable of creating a complex thing must itself be complex.  What this does is effectively move God into the realm of creation, subjecting him to the same characteristics that we observe around us.
The Bible argues that there are two categories to existence.  In the first category you have God.  In the second category, you have everything else.  Koala bears, ducks, redwood trees, pulsars, angels, demons, and Pat Sajak.  This organization of creation differs markedly from the predominate division of the world derived from Greek philosophy, which creates a dualistic universe made up of spirit and ideas in one category, and physical, material objects and persons in the other.  And it is different from the secular philosophy that there is only one category, and God isn’t in it.  The Bible posits that God is outside of creation – fundamentally separate and different from it.  God is eternal, the universe is finite.  God has no creation or creator, the universe has God as it’s creator.  
What Dawkins’ argument does is erase this distinction.  He places God within the confines of the created order, subjects him (by hypothesis) to the same issues that Dawkins sees in creation, and announces that such a God is nigh on impossible.  What he does in the process is import his interpretation of how things in the natural world must be (simple things evolving into more complex things) and then ports this understanding to his interpretation of God.  None of which is Biblical.
The result is that Dawkins is not dealing with the God of the Bible, but with another god that he has created from his own assumptions and observations about the universe.  It’s a version of a straw man argument, a form of logical fallacy where you deliberately misrepresent the position of your opponent in order to more easily tear it down.  I can’t say if Dawkins’ misrepresentation is intentional or not.  It could be just ignorance, but if that’s the case, then Dawkins is tilting at the wrong windmills, and perhaps his view of the Judeo-Christian God would be fundamentally different based on a more correct (Biblically speaking) understanding of him.
But I doubt it.
I’m rather surprised that he feels this is the silver bullet that almost – but not entirely – negates the idea of God.  I’m surprised that he feels this is what should win over agnostics and weaken the faith of Christians.  No doubt, some of this will be accomplished, particularly among folks who have less of a familiarity with what Scripture has to say about God.  But it’s hardly the weighty and intellectual dismantling of the faith that Dawkins sets out to accomplish.  

Book Review: Elements of Rite

December 11, 2011

Elements of Rite by Aidan Kavanagh.

This is a brief (104 pages) treatise on liturgy.  It’s considered by many to be the liturgical equivalent of Strunk & White’s famous Elements of Style.  Whether you consider Kavanagh’s book to be that influential and helpful probably depends a great deal on your preconceived notions about liturgy.
Admittedly, this book would be of primary interest to pastors and others engaged in regular leading of worship.  That’s the focus of the book.  How you do it and why you do it.  Not in the technical sense of the word, but in the more aesthetic, artistic sense.  Kavanagh writes from a very conservative liturgical stance (as well as a Roman Catholic one).  Not necessarily high church in terms of complicated and intricate liturgies, but from the perspective that he takes liturgy seriously as something that does things to us, rather than something we simply have the freedom to do things to or with.  As such, pastors and leaders in liturgical denominations will probably find this most helpful.
However, I’ll be a nerd and argue that this book has a broader audience, potentially.  It isn’t just those who lead liturgy who ought to understand and respect it.  Those who participate in liturgy should understand and respect it as well.  And while the respect is traditionally there (though less so as time progresses), the understanding isn’t always.  Pastors and liturgical leaders have the benefit of special training and education to help them appreciate and understand what they’re doing.  It doesn’t always stick, but at least they’ve been exposed to it.  Most folks in the pew have not.  They participate in liturgy (or are subjected to it) every week in worship but aren’t necessarily formally educated in what they’re doing or why.  I think that’s unfortunate.
If more folks understood the nature of liturgy and public worship, it might better inform our discussions of it and our decisions to modify it.  Tragically, it’s often more fun to complain than it is to really think through what we’re doing and why and potentially change our opinions (and eventually our tastes) accordingly.  
Almost a year ago I attempted to engage in a discussion on Facebook with an acquaintance from a different theological tradition on the issue of worship.  They were lamenting about how terrible worship was in any number of their denominational congregations in the area.  I asked them what they understood worship to be, and more importantly, what their denomination understood it to be.  In other words, I can complain about something I don’t care for.  But what is the basis for my not caring for it?  Would I care for it more if I understood what it was and why it’s there?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it would give me a basis from which to critique my own preferences.  
As is often the case, the Facebook conversation eventually went nowhere, which is a shame.  While it was clear that people have strong opinions, it was also clear that most of the folks involved in the discussion didn’t really want to go to the effort of exploring the matter more deeply.  They were most concerned with their immediate tastes and preferences.  But if that’s all we have to go by, then it’s a pretty relativistic field we’re playing on.  Who says my tastes and preferences should dictate?  Why not someone else’s – even if that someone else died 400 years ago?
So, this book can be helpful.  He’s not advocating so much about what should be done, but he discusses some of what is done and why.  And more importantly, he offers a pretty sane voice in terms of how leaders ought to approach worship in the sense of not only what they do or don’t do, but how they do it or not.  
If you’re nerdy, this might appeal to you.  If you aren’t, then read something else – or get this as a sleeping aid.

Jesus is my DJ

December 11, 2011

Thanks to J.P. for sending this video link to me with the query “Amazing or manipulative?”

You can watch it here:
It’s a 14-minute clip, of which the majority of it is just elaborate build up to the final couple of minutes.  
Watched it yet?  
Yes, this is manipulative.  
The amazing-ness of nature and the universe is incredible beyond belief just as it is.  To work it into a mix tape of praise music is just tacky.  But then again, I am by my own admission, a bit of a curmudgeon.  

Good Grief, Charlie Brown

December 9, 2011
I wrote this a week ago, but somehow it didn’t get published!

I grew up with A Charlie Brown Christmas.  And while I don’t watch television regularly any more, it remains one of my fondest memories of the medium.  It doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that 46 years ago, television executives were probably just as leery of the show’s appeal as they would be today.  

But it’s a good reminder of what we can accomplish in large and small ways if we attempt to remain true to our convictions, rather than cave to the pressures of the culture around us.  

Reading Update

December 9, 2011

Sheesh, somebody should really do something about keeping up this blog.  Getting pretty thin on content!

We’ll begin with a reading update.  As most of you know, I like to read from time to time.  Here are the current reads.
Richard Dawkins’ – The God Delusion.  I’ll have some other posts on this (as I have already).  I’m always struck with amazement that the folks who scream at Christianity the loudest have nothing better to offer than ‘maybe you’re not right!’.  They scream it in different ways, but it all boils down to rather the same thing.  
Aidan Kavanagh – Elements of Rite.  I’ll have a review on this shortly.  While ultimately helpful to clergy, the book has some solid things to contribute to the ongoing debates about worship styles.
Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death.  I’m about a quarter of the way through this rather short but interesting insight into some of the ramifications of our cultural shift away from the written word and towards images and television.  Although the book is 25 years old, I suspect that’s only going to make it more powerful as we can see some of the very things Postman was talking about.
Robert Benne – Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics.  About 1/4 of the way into this one as well.  He’s basically arguing that the Lutheran approach to politics and religion is a terribly helpful alternative to the two prevailing ways of approaching how these things interact – separationism and fusionism.  He argues that expecting, let alone attempting total separation of faith and the public sphere is not only ludicrous, it’s unhealthy.  He also argues that attempting to fuse the two into a theocratic entity is fundamentally misguided (and not nearly the possibility that many secularists seem to fear).  
Kenneth C. Haugk – Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart.  Published by Stephen Ministries, I’m interested to hear how this book approaches the issue of caring for and being with people who are struggling profoundly.  Not very far into it, but looking forward to gaining some wisdom (hopefully!) through it.
What are y’all reading?  Anything interesting?  Thought-provoking?  Delightfully relaxing and fun?

It’s Not Mine So It’s Beautiful

December 8, 2011

Motivation and energy has been low.  But, to hopefully kickstart the engine again, here’s a link to a very eloquent and simple blog post by another Lutheran pastor (who I don’t know personally).  A haunting reminder of what Advent is and why we need it.  For all those who suffer.