Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Next Adventure

I am about to begin a new phase of following God's call on my life. I will become the co-pastor of a brand new church here in Fort Worth.

No, I am not leaving my law practice. This pastorate will be a true "tentmaking" venture, meaning that I am maintaining my full-time job (as is Jim Pannell, my co-pastor) and serving as a volunteer pastor of this new congregation. This call came to me a year ago, and after a year of prayer and introspection, I am ready - yea, excited and anxious - to move forward. I covet your prayers.

A little background...

When I was 15 years old, on a youth mission trip in an out-of-the-way place called Skidway Lake, Michigan, I surrendered my life to “full-time Christian service.” Oh, I had been a Christian as long as I remember. I was baptized at the tender age of 8. I was raised by two seminarians, was active in the church, and could say the books of the Bible backwards. I knew I was going to heaven. But it was not until the age of 15 that I began to comprehend what it means to call Jesus “Lord” as well as “Savior.”

At that time, living on the buckle of the Bible belt in Nashville, Tennessee, I thought that “full-time Christian service” meant that I had to become pastor of a church. God had other ideas. I began an internal struggle with myself and with God. I thought I HAD to become a professional minister because I did not really understand what else “full time Christian service” could mean. I prayed regularly. I got good advice from a lot of people, including most notably from my seminary-graduate father, who told me, “If you can be happy doing anything other than pastoring, do that.”

And then, one morning on a family vacation in Pensacola, Florida in the summer of 1985, I knew. I know that sounds either hyper-mystical or just nuts to some of you, but I simply woke up that morning and was certain that I was not called by God to be a full-time pastor, not directed to seminary, not summoned to the so-called “professional ministry.”

I never second-guessed that understanding of God’s will for my life… that call… and I never understood it to be anything other than the word that the full-time pastorate was not for me. I had by that point in my life come to understand that I was not gifted in ways that full-time pastors require – I do not have what is commonly known as “pastoral vision.” I am not equipped for the day-to-day administrative and ministry requirements of that job. I knew then, however, that I do have gifts that made deciphering my call complex. Those gifts are in the areas of speaking, teaching, wisdom, and leadership. I resolved that very summer day on the beach that my understanding of God’s call did not mean that I should not use my spiritual gifts and talents to my fullest ability to the glory of God. The trick for me was finding out how to use what God had given me in ways other than as a full-time pastor.

I have tried my best to live up to that commitment. I have taught Sunday School for thirty years. I was ordained as a deacon at the age of 27. I have written two books and numerous articles and even a couple of choir anthems. This blog has been a place for me to share what God has laid on my heart. I have served my churches on committees and through music and in fellowship. I have had opportunities to preach and lead retreats and speak to various groups, even while polishing my skills as a lawyer and a community presence. I hope my co-workers will tell you I have been an ambassador for Christ at the office - although I confess to falling short on that front all too often. My family, who know me best, are most aware of my multiple failings and probably (they are too polite, usually, to say it to my face) shake their heads at the idea of me as a pastor. I have sought out my pastors and ministers and striven to be a sounding board for them and to lend them a word of direction when it was appropriate. I am sure that has made me a pest at times, for I am not perfect, but my motivation has always been to use my gifts and talents for the Father.

I have also learned. I have paid attention. I have studied and listened. I believe that God has been preparing me for what He has prepared for me – this call to this church at this time.
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I am very churchy. I have been accused of being “too churchy,” but I have never shied away. I have never wavered in my belief that we Christians simply must be an active part of the local church. I believe that the church is the Body of Christ, so Christ reaches the world with our arms, and Christ speaks to the world through our voices, and Christ changes the course of the world through our minds. I know that Christians can and do act independently, but there is no substitute for the corporate body of the church, moving together – with Jesus as our head – to fulfill His mission.

But the importance of the church is more than serving the world. The church is crucial for each one of us as we grow and obey. Charles Wesley was onto something when he wrote the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Our Christian life falters when we try to do it alone. We must join together to hear the Word of God preached. We need to witness baptism and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is essential that we come together to share our stories and bear our burdens and lift up our prayers together. We are obligated to hear and teach and discuss holy scripture together.
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Over the last couple of years, I have been drawn to a friendship with a man who has become a part of my Sunday School class, a man named Jim Pannell. One day last summer, as he and I sat down to eat our sushi lunch, Jim dropped this bombshell: “Lyn, God is calling me back into the ministry, and I believe that God wants you to join me in starting a new church.” I sat there with what I am sure was an idiotic expression on my face as he laid out what God has placed on his heart, and I found myself nodding and asking questions as my excitement grew. It was not until that evening, however, when I began to discuss the possibility with my wife Gena, that I was sure. I was not two sentences into what Jim had said when she interrupted me and said, “Yes, of course you should do this. This is meant for you.”

And so, we – Jim and I, Gena and I, Jim and Amy and Gena and I - have spent nearly a year talking and planning and praying, and I have never felt anything but affirmation from the Father that this is His plan. You see, I still do not have all the gifts that a full-time pastor needs, but this team approach is perfect, for Jim has vision in spades. What Gena was saying, I believe, and what I heard God saying over a dragon roll and what I have continued to hear God say, is that this is where I have been heading. This is how I can now best use those gifts from God.
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So, what do I want this church to be? How do I envision it? Let me hasten to say that my wants or Jim’s wants are not what this church will be about, for God is sovereign and Jesus is our Leader. But I believe that God works through His children, and I believe that He is working right now through all of us.

You are aware of – and weary of – what has happened in our politics and our dialog and our public interaction. If I could put a word on it, it is extremism. I am not lumping every office-holder, every candidate, or every policy into that boat … but as a rule, we have become a society where everyone has circled up with his or her own allies to defend what is, for the moment, precious; as a result, too many have demonized, and even more have mistrusted, all those who have taken a different route. What unites us dwarfs what divides us, but you would never know that from social media or television news.

The same thing has happened in our churches. In my Baptist world, a perceived liberal slant of some seminaries led to a hard-right push that resulted in a new fundamentalism punctuated by political hardball tactics, with dismayed public reactions from those who suddenly perceived themselves on the outside of power. Unsurprisingly, labeling and splits and new fellowships and organizations were quick to follow. Now, those groups are subdividing, as issues as old as Calvinism and as new as transgender recognition force adherents of cells that were like-minded yesterday into opposite corners today. (If your background is not Baptist, don’t sit there smugly. The exact issues may not be the same, but Presbyterians and Episcopals and Methodists are going through a similar metamorphosis.) It has also happened with worship. Some claim that a contemporary style is required for evangelism because it is said to be the only possible way to reach seekers, while others hold to a formal liturgy as the only true means of honoring God. Still others have tried to please everyone, leading to what my former pastor Frank Lewis called: “The Blended Service, guaranteed to offend everybody.”

Not every churchgoer holds to these extremes, of course. There are plenty of worshipers who go with the flow and can worship with pipe organ or electric guitar. But these folks are too often caught in the crossfire between the true-believing extremists, and the results often leave many dissatisfied.

One more point before I say what I want this church to be. I am disappointed and exasperated by what I see and hear from many of our churches. I agree with Professor Roger Olson, who says:
"[M]any American evangelical churches are almost totally devoid of theology. I have been a theology professor of thousands of students in three Christian universities over almost thirty years. During that time, I have noticed a downward trend in terms of Christian students’ biblical and theological awareness. I have also noticed that trend in the churches I have attended. Whereas thirty years ago … most evangelical churches taught Bible stories …, most have moved to the most vapid “study” of ethical and moral issues … [instead of] biblical teaching and the study of doctrines. Many churches and Christian youth organizations have simply abdicated their responsibility to teach basic Christian beliefs so that Christianity seems to many … a shallow religion of self-fulfillment with God’s help. This … 'Christless Christianity' … is simply pervasive in American church life."

I share Dr. Olson’s frustration. I am not interested in a church that focuses on self-help and discussions of ethical issues that could happen just as successfully on a park bench or around a table at Chili’s. If church is not at the same time a cathedral and a hospital and a home and a place of confession and honesty and accord and a place where the truths of scripture – all the truths of scripture – are proclaimed, it is not – to me - a church.

So, what do I want, what is it that I hope to lead, what is it that I believe that God is forming?

First, it is a church that honors God in everything we do - in worship and preaching and ordinance and prayer, in ministry and mission locally and nationally and internationally, in fellowship and hospitality - focused on Jesus Christ and holy scripture and His teachings, whether or not they are popular, politically correct, or guaranteed to draw a crowd.

Second, I want this to be a church where everyone not only is welcome but feels welcome, no matter what extreme they may have espoused. For the non-Christians, this church must be a place they can enter and meet Jesus or, if they have met Jesus but are not yet a follower, this must be a place where they can learn Christ and see Him modeled in all we do. For the believers, we should be a congregation where the fundamentalist, the liturgist, the Calvinist, the emergent churcher, the liberal, the traditional Southern Baptist, the intellectual, the non-denominational megachurch-goer, and everyone in between can all sit down and worship together. To be sure, Jim and I are traditional Baptists; we will teach and hold to doctrine and behaviors and practices that will not suit all those folks, at least initially, but we will not shut the door, literally or figuratively, on any of them.

Third, it will be a place where worship is done with excellence, with purpose, and based on a classic tradition. I have nothing against rock-n-roll church, nor do I find fault with high church ceremony; but there are many other places in Fort Worth where worshipers can find either. We can only be who we are and what God has planted.
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If Jesus is our Lord, it cannot be just on Sundays. I have nothing against full-time professional ministers; many of my closest friends are just that, and I am certain they are fulfilling God’s call for them. But there are other models, and this new opportunity presents the challenge to Jim and me of leading this church on the Lord’s Day and following Christ’s call in our 9-to-5 jobs throughout the week. Paul was a tentmaker even while he preached, and there is a great tradition of those walking in that path. I feel the call – the great privilege and honor – to model what it can be to serve our Lord both in this church and in the courtroom, where my so-called “regular job” requires me. If I can help someone else expand his or her ministry into following Christ in all parts of life, then this entire venture will have been worthwhile.

I look forward with anticipation and humility and great joy to what God lays out before us. I suspect that those of you who read this blog may see some of my sermons showing up here, because I will be using what God says to me in that way, and this seems a natural place to share.

It will be an adventure...

Saturday, June 3, 2017

School's Out for the Summer

Eight years ago today, I wrote a blog noting that after eleven years, I was no longer an elementary school parent.

Now, I am through with high school. Our youngest child, Annessa, is a high school graduate.


My 33-year-old wonder at entering kindergarten and wondering where the time had gone was amusing to my 44-year-old self writing about how quickly elementary school had passed. Now, eight years later, the nest is emptying. We have been parenting for nearly twenty-four years, and the house will soon be inhabited by only two adults, two dogs, and two cats. School's out, and as Alice Cooper sang, my kids are moving on to new toys. We parents "got no choice" about it. The world keeps spinning.

It is hard to describe my emotions. I am not sad. This is the way things ought to be. Still, my comfort zone is shifting. What I have known for nineteen years - having school-aged kids - is no more.

Change is good, and yet how grateful I am for the knowledge of what does not change. God is still God. Autumn will follow the summer as surely as day follows night, as surely as the butterfly will emerge from the cocoon, as surely as our college kids will face new challenges and learn new things and meet new people. Gena and I will once again remember what it is to live with just each other, and it will be all right.

Time keeps on slippin' into the future. And that's ok.

Let's see what comes next.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Trinity and The Shack

When I was three years old (I am relying on my mother for this story… I don’t remember it), I apparently interrupted the family dinner conversation to ask my parents to explain the Trinity to me.

I don’t know what they said then, but like most Christians – if not most people in general – I have continued to wonder how best to explain the Trinity. The idea of “three in one” or “God in three persons” may speak truth, but there is a difference between understanding that a concept is true and having the first clue how to explain it. Historically, the Christian idea of the Trinity has led followers of Islam to label us as polytheists on the order of the Ancient Greeks.

In trying to explain how belief in the Trinity does not diminish our agreement that God is One, I am not a big fan of the sometimes-popular H2O analogy, that it can be ice or water or steam, because it is none of those things at the same time. It has to change form from one to the other, and it is dependent on temperature.

I resonate more with the idea that I am husband, son, and father. I am all those things simultaneously, so the metaphor is closer, but it is still far from ideal. After all, I am father to three people, and son to two, and husband to one, and my wife may at moments see me as father or watch me acting as son, but I always relate to her as husband. There is nobody to whom I speak one day as son and the next day as husband or father.

The fact is that we have no appropriate parallel for the Trinity. Indeed, the Bible does not use the word Trinity. That is a word we human beings have created to try to explain the way we experience the three persons of God.

There can be little doubt that the Bible teaches of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. When we have seen the Son, we have seen the Father. The Son is the exact representation of the Father. The Spirit is God’s Spirit, the way that Christ is with us always.

I have written before about the recent book phenomenon The Shack. I am writing again because it is now a major Hollywood movie, and it takes a shot at portraying the Trinity. God the Father is described in the book as a "large, middle-aged, African American woman" who likes to be called “Papa.” God the Son is a Middle-Eastern man, and God the Spirit is a youngish Asian woman. They sometimes appear at the same time, gathered around a table sharing a meal or walking together telling stories. They sometimes appear separately, each interacting with the story’s protagonist, Mack, in different ways. When they are together, sometimes they answer a question in unison, and sometimes one responds and the others beam their approval. It gets complicated.

It gets more intricate. At one place in the story, Papa becomes an older Native American male for a time when Mack “is going to need a father.” At another time, the Spirit appears as Sophia, the personification of Wisdom as we may picture her out of the scriptural writings of Solomon.

There are many who have written despairingly of the book and the movie. Some of those people have actually read the book or seen the movie, and others have dismissed them out of hand, with no apparent need to read or watch.

I understand their criticisms. Some dislike the theology of the author, William Paul Young, based on other things he has written. I cannot speak to his other works, as I have not read them, but I disagree with most of the challenges I have read to the theology of The Shack.

Those who accuse it of teaching universalism are not reading it very carefully, for it most certainly does not do so. In the novel, after Jesus explains that heaven will include many kinds of people, Mack asks, “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?” Jesus replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” That is not universalism.

Others criticize the book’s response to sin. In truth, what God says in the novel, and the movie, is that God “does not need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” Maybe I am being too forgiving, but I do not read that statement as a denigration of two thousand years of theology of the ultimate consequences of sin or of the nature of God; I read it as a statement that sin almost always carries its own reward, which of course includes separation from God.

Some find the story’s answers to hard questions about suffering and loss to be simplistic, and perhaps some of its answers are. But the central message of the goodness of God and how we can deal with suffering are sound.

Still others criticize the story because they do not believe that we should represent God through human actors. I understand that as a view of the Second Commandment, but I think it is misplaced. There is no attempt in The Shack for us to worship these representations as though they were idols, limited attempts to capture God within graven images for our own use (the real target of the Second Commandment). Instead, these are images, poetry, attempts to explain what is – and has been for me since I was three years old – accessible to believe but impossible to explain with any level of exactness.

The Shack is fiction, and judging it against the truth of scripture as though it were holding itself up as equal truth or even as a scholarly essay on scripture is wrong. It is a novel, a movie. It is not to be quoted and studied the way we approach a gospel. It is a story. It is a way to try to explain that which is hard to explain.

Without defending every word Young writes or each answer he provides, I find the novel and the movie extremely worthwhile. Certainly, as a movie, "The Shack" is orders of magnitude better than the recent tide of “faith movies.” It is far more professionally done, with top-level actors and writing. It is not the same ilk as “Facing Your Giants” or “God is Not Dead.” It is a true Hollywood movie. More important, it is a powerful portrayal of the goodness of God that seeks relationship and joy for God’s children.

But I write now, having seen the movie and re-read the book, because I am intrigued by the way the Trinity is portrayed. It is worthy of commentary.

If the racial choices for the persons of Papa and the Spirit offend you, you won’t like the book or the movie, but you won’t find anything in scripture to defend your position. If the portrayal of God the Father by a woman is a bridge too far for you, I understand that, but I would ask you to expand your idea of the limitlessness of our heavenly Father. In The Shack, Papa is at times feminine and at times masculine, sometimes black and sometimes red or brown. Depicting a spirit – for God is indeed Spirit – with human actors requires a choice, and for me, the choices here work.

So, I recommend both the book and the movie. They are not earth-shattering, and if you do not already know God, I doubt they will bring you to Him, although they can teach you much about Him. But if you do know Him, they are a moving experience of how we can and do find forgiveness, reassurance, and fulfillment.

It may not answer your questions about the Trinity, but The Shack will give you a lot to think about.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fences

"Fences" is a powerful movie. I recommend it strongly.

Having said that, let me say that I do not know that you will "enjoy" the movie. I am not sure that I "enjoyed" it. I appreciated the excellent acting. I am astounded by the clarity of the writing. I marveled at the direction of Denzel Washington, taking this stage play to the screen and, while never letting you forget you were watching a play, making it a "real movie."

But I did not "enjoy" it. It is too deep, too personal, too close to home.

As in most of my blog movie reviews, I expect there will be spoilers here. It is not my goal to give away the plot, but you can find most of that in other reviews on the internet. This movie is not really about surprises anyway.

"Fences" spoke to me.

It has a lot of characteristics that flavor the tone of the movie, but it is not really "about" any of those things.

The movie is not really about race. It is certainly set in and completely textured by the life of a group of African-Americans in Pittsburgh in the fifties and into the sixties. It features dialog and dialect and issues of importance to African-Americans - and to all of us - then and now. There is much talk of prejudice and equal opportunity and how the white man treats the black man. There are references to Jackie Robinson and a picture of Dr. King. But the movie is not about race so much as it is set in a time and place where race issues permeate the thoughts and conversation.

The movie is not really about family. It is certainly set within a family structure. Husband, wife, brother, children, mother, father, wayward child, achieving child... these types are all here. How we relate to those we love is a repetitive backdrop. But the movie is not about family so much as it uses family as a vehicle.

The movie is not really about religion. The symbol of the cross is omnipresent, whether on a wall or on a necklace or on the Steel City skyline. There is a well-placed picture of Jesus overlooking much of the activity. The church and the Last Judgment and the pearly gates are all up for discussion. But the movie is not about religion so much as it is set against an assumption of the role of religion in each of these characters' life.

The movie is not really about death. One character talks about death - and to Death - with some regularity. The specter of death hangs over the whole movie, and the interspersed discussion of St. Peter, waiting to open the gates for all of us, keeps death front and center. But the movie is not about death so much as it pays homage to the certainty of death for us all.

The movie is also not about baseball, that holiest of symbols. It uses the language of baseball constantly, and I suspect that if you do not speak that language - if the image of a hanging curveball over the inside corner or a full count against a good pitcher or why Hank Aaron is "just doing what he is paid to do" - then some of the most imaginative and meaningful of the dialog of the movie will be lost on you. If you cannot identify with the Negro Leaguer who was too old for the majors by the time of integration, then you will not understand some of the basic motivation of the movie. If a ball hanging on a rope from a limb with a bat leaning against the trunk do not make you long to take a swing, whether out of frustration or pure joy, then you will not get everything in the movie. But the movie is not about baseball so much as it speaks through baseball.

There are other things that permeate the movie that some reviewers will latch onto that are not really what the movie is about - money, music, rebellion, feminism, the need we all have to build. These are all crucial aspects of the movie, but they are not what it is about.

This movie is about a man who is lost. This movie is about a man, Troy, whom we want to like and in fact we do like, at least for a while, who is lost. Life for Troy started unfairly, and he may well have tried his best to overcome his circumstances, but somewhere along the way he began lying to himself, and to his family, and to God. Somewhere along the way - maybe always - he found ways to take and take and take while convincing himself he was giving and giving and giving. Troy takes advantage of his brother and his wife and the government. He is looking for a chance to take advantage of the boss - ostensibly to blaze a trail for others but really just to make his own life easier. He takes advantage of one son who is looking for an excuse ... any excuse ... to have a relationship with his father, and he takes advantage of another son who challenges what Troy might have become.

This movie is about a man who tries to take advantage of death. Troy sacrifices what is good and right. His explanation/excuse for his betrayal is that age and life and experience have, in his mind, taken away his ability to laugh. Like Vincent Gardenia's character Cosmo in the great "Moonstruck," who blames his longtime affair on his fear of dying, Troy is aging, and the Grim Reaper is ever closer, and he searches for a way to take advantage of death. But the way he does it is so outrageous, so hurtful, so completely self-centered that even his best friend has no alternative but to distance himself. What was once a constant companionship deteriorates into an almost-by-chance occasional meeting, colored by nothing but small talk and discomfort.

There will be much talk about the power in many of Rose's lines, and Viola Davis deserves every award she gets. To me, her most poignant line, the line that embodies the theme of this movie, is not one that most of the reviewers are fawning over. To me, her line that "sometimes he bruises when he touches" is the theme of the movie. This man is lost, and he does not think he knows the way home. Or to be clearer, he will not take the way home. He looks for it in gin and in humor and in the bedroom, but he never finds it. He knows the way - it is right in front of him on that ever-present necklace and over the sink and on the wall and in the simple faith of his brother and in the enduring faithfulness of his wife and in the determination of his son. But he will not accept the way home, and he is lost.

And along the way, he bruises those he touches.

He builds too many fences.

You should see this movie.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Breath of Heaven - A Christmas Prayer

"How will this be," Mary asked, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

I have wandered many moonless nights, cold and lonely, with a babe inside.
And I wonder what I've done. Holy Father, you have come and chosen me now to carry your son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear. In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now.
Be with me now.
Breath of Heaven, hold me together, be forever near me, Breath of Heaven.
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness for you are holy, Breath of Heaven.
Do you wonder, as you watch my face, if a wiser one one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.
Breath of Heaven...


The English word spirit come from the Latin spiritus, which means "breath." In the New Testament, the Greek work pneuma means "breath" or "wind," but when it has the Greek word for "Holy" in front of it, it always refers to the Holy Spirit. So, when we speak to the Spirit, we are speaking to and about the breath of God, the Breath of Heaven.

I was a little surprised this December when I learned that the Chancel Choir at my church, where we usually sing very "proper" and "higher church" music, would be singing on Christmas Eve a piece written by Amy Grant. For those of you who are uninitiated, there has never been a bigger star on the contemporary Christian music front. Not Sandi Patty. Not Michael W. Smith. Not the Imperials. Not Chris Tomlin.

Many of you know that I am from Nashville. If you come close to guessing my age and then do the math, you know generally who was in my circle growing up. No, Amy Grant and I were not friends, but we had many mutual friends. She is a little older than I am. She went to my sister school, and while I am sure that she would not remember me, we were often in the same place at the same time. Look at this picture:
Yes, this is a picture, from my seventh grade annual, of a young, un-made-up Amy Grant, with hair parted down the middle, wearing clogs and leaning on a stool, strumming her guitar and singing in my school assembly program. I doubt she shows this picture to many of her fans these days. From looking at it, there is no real way to guess what Amy was to become. Oh, we all thought Amy was cool, but it is one thing to sing on a high school stage in front of friends; it is another to become who Amy Grant is today.

The song my choir sang tonight at the Christmas Eve service was "Breath of Heaven," which Amy subtitled "Mary's Song." I think there is a lesson here in Amy's picture.

I don't know how old Mary was. Some scholars posit that she was no more than thirteen. That does not seem right to me, as I read her words in Luke 1, but it does not really matter. She may have been the age of one of my children now, but however old she was, she was a backwater Nazarene maiden. If we had a picture of her from her seventh-grade yearbook, there would be no real way to guess what Mary was to become. She was obviously remarkable. And yet, it is one thing to wax poetic with the Magnificat when the glow of the angel's appearance is still fresh on your face; it is another thing to be nine months pregnant, traveling in first century conditions, unmarried, and unwelcome. It is not too much for the song to describe her as frightened, wondering, alone, prayerful.

But the piece we sang ... Amy's song ... Mary's prayer ... is not the prayer of the desperate. It is the prayer of the faithful. She may not know why she was chosen, but she knows that she was chosen. She may not know if a wiser one could have done the job, but she knows that she is doing the job. She may not know where her path will go, but she knows whom she wants on the path with her.

She wants the Holy Spirit. Not some indistinct, namby-pamby sense that the cosmos is somehow behind her. Not a passing interest from a far-off supreme being. No, she is walking with her God, who is present and real, the part of the trinity who is responsible for her pregnancy in the first place. She asks for the one traveling with her to breathe on her with holiness and power, to be the constant reminder of the presence of God. She asks for the Breath of Heaven.

Her prayer is our prayer. Lighten my darkness. Be with me now. Hold me together. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy.

The prayer is all our prayer. It is not just at Christmas, but maybe it is especially at Christmas that we all feel pain, grief, abandonment, the seeming impossibility of what lies before us. We do not feel like the chosen of God. We feel no more special than a teenage girl in bad shoes and no makeup just doing our best to sing a song.

But still, we offer all we are.

Breath of Heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me.

Breath of Heaven, help me be strong.

Help me be.

Help me.

Breath of Heaven...

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

This World Is Not My Home

I look around, and I do not recognize a lot of what I see. I am out of place. I do not belong. As a Christian, I feel more than ever a kinship with those brothers and sisters who first articulated this truism: "This world is not my home. I'm just passing through."

I have written before about being an alien, but that blog was more of a personal confession of my own idiosyncrasies than it was an understanding of the Christian's place in the world.

Today, I am not just an alien because people do not understand me. I am an alien because this world is running away from me.

Everywhere you look, the world looks different. I am not going to catalog the changes that are going on in our society. You know them, and if you need a list of how laws, schools, entertainment, politics, and even many popular churches have changed radically from what we knew even ten years ago, Google will help you out. Think where our world has gone on issues as varied as gay marriage and diplomatic recognition of Cuba. Listen to the political discussions and pay attention to what local school boards are doing. The world is spinning differently today. These changes are of course the result, in large part, of a new respect for diversity combined with a rejection of many traditional "conservative Christian values." They are the offspring of expanding freedoms and decreasing tolerance for disagreement. They spring both from widening understandings and narrowing acceptance. They result from sin and from growth. They are, in short, proximately caused by both evil and benign societal evolution. Regardless of the source of the seismic shifts in our world, we simply do not and cannot live like we used to. For many of us, the recognition that we march not just to a different drummer but in fact in an entirely different band playing a separate show for a different audience becomes more and more of a reality. For some, this realization spurred a political campaign that would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Many are simply shocked by the world around them.

A number of things come to mind.

First, we upper-middle-class American Christians can join the club. Our brothers and sisters around the world - and many in our own nation - have known for generations the troubles of living among the peoples of this world and the animosity the world holds toward the truth of the gospel. (There is a reason the nineteenth-century African-American experience produced the spiritual.) Frankly, many of us have been too long lulled by a society that has given lip service to the things of God and by people who allowed our steeples and our blue laws and our public prayers to exist in relative comfort. Our values have influenced, if not controlled, the surface of the surrounding political and educational and entertainment worlds enough that we could go along our merry way, choosing to write a letter to the editor about a radical proposal here or complain about sex and language in movies there and otherwise live in comparative satisfaction. We have not really had to contemplate being a disrespected minority before. That day is past.

Second, we can identify with characters in the Bible we have studied for years. Suddenly, being a stranger in a strange land has new meaning. Now, reading that Israel is going where God's people have not been before is real. All of a sudden, apostles cowering in an upper room is not so laughable. Maybe John was on to something when he wrote Revelation in code to escape government censorship.

Third, we can wake up. This world has never been our home. For decades, because our services have been tolerated and even attended by those with smiles on their faces and Billy Graham's sermons have been televised, we have too often felt that God's message did not need us, that we lived in a "Christian nation," and that all was well. How wrong we have been. God have mercy.

Fourth, we have to decide how to react. Shaking our fists at the coming tidal wave is a waste of time, not to mention being embarrassingly futile. Demanding that the clock be turned back has no effect. Expecting a broken world to act as though it were not broken and hoping that we can continue to pretend that "those people" do not exist are not options.

Fifth, we simply must do some prayerful soul-searching and study. We need to listen to God explain to us, patiently as always, how we have been wrong. Not all of the changes are bad. Some of the "radical" things that threaten us may cause us discomfort because we have been fat and happy in the wrong place for a long time. Maybe we will be prompted to reexamine some Of our views. It is entirely possible that, like the Israelites and the Pharisees, we have - with the best of intentions - created God in our image and squeezed out of our view the possibility that God's kingdom looks different from what we have conjured. Again, may the Lord have mercy on us.

So, what to do?
• We can build our walls higher and retreat to Fortress Church, letting the world around us go to hell while we wait for Jesus to come back.
• We can stomp our feet and follow reactionary candidates and demand that our (now minority) values continue to be recognized and honored.
• We can take the world on in a cage fight, matching our tracts and sermons and well-meaning calling out of sin against its indifference and antagonism. We may be correct on many issues, but we won't like the result of the battle.

Or
• We can pray for the peace and prosperity of this land where God has led us. It may not be our eternal home, but God has placed us here for the foreseeable future. Like exiled Judah in the land of Babylon, we have a choice of crying by the the waters or blooming where we are planted, loving and serving God even as we love and serve the people with whom we find ourselves.
• We can work for change in the world, (maybe with a political vote where appropriate, but also) offering cups of cold water, serving banquets where all are welcome, and making sure our own traditions are submissive to what God is doing.
• We can present a witness that has some hope of actually convincing anybody. In this century, simply saying "for the Bible tells me so" is unconvincing and unimportant to many. We need to understand why God's way is the best way so that we can articulate truth and debate with patience, confidence, and genuine love for those who disagree. Of course scripture is critical to our argument, but we must comprehend and explain it, not just quote it and swing it like a baseball bat.

This world is not our home, but we are here now. The prince of this world will no longer allow our comfort to continue, and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe every time the Supreme Court or the local school board makes a decision that makes our skin crawl, we will be moved not to anger and resignation but to service and to sharing the gospel. Perhaps recognizing that our understanding of God's view of sexuality or kindness or taking care of the poor is not the majority view - indeed not even held by many people we know at all - will prompt us not to despair but to a search for opportunity to engage our neighbors without being obnoxious.

Read Acts 18. In Corinth, Paul's discouragement was natural as he saw his message falling on deaf ears and his work being unappreciated. God promised him His presence, but God did not let Paul off the hook. He was to stay put for a time and continue doing what God wanted him to do. Likewise, our understandable frustration win our society is not a license to quit or to withdraw or otherwise to be anything other than exactly what God wants us to be.

Our world, and our nation, are not what they were. We are in Babylon, or in Corinth, or in Texas or South Carolina or Tennessee or Washington or California or Maryland or Illinois or Massachusetts or New York. And God is right there with us, unmoved by court cases or bathroom laws or marriage edicts or school policies. Let us render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; and by all means let us render unto God what is God's

This world is not our home, but we are certainly passing through. We are eternal beings experiencing a temporary human existence. Make the most of it. We are here for a reason.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

On the 2016 Baylor Football Season

This blog will not be my usual religious and/or political thought, movie review, or philosophical meandering. It is instead a commentary on a situation that will only matter to a select subset of the readers of my blog.

I am a Baylor football fan.

I watched my Baylor Bears play a terrible football game yesterday. It was their second terrible performance in a row, their third awful performance in the last four, and their fifth loss in a row. They are very likely to lose a sixth in a row to conclude the season next week; I hope it is not with another terrible performance.

The background story is well-known - certainly to the subset of my blog readers who are still reading this one - so I will not belabor it. Instead, I want to offer thoughts.

Back in May, the day after Art Briles was fired, I wrote the following on my Facebook post:

Baylor - The Day After
Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I love the Lord, love my family, love practicing law, love writing, love Baylor University, and love Baylor sports. I try very hard to keep it in that order.
I do not have any inside information. I have precisely the same facts and data that anyone else who cares to read the Pepper Hamilton report and do some basic Googling has or can have. I have withheld judgment because I knew I did not have all the facts, and I understood the University's reluctance to discuss too much private information publicly. Now, however, we have the findings of the law firm, and the time for withholding judgment is past.
Here are my thoughts at the moment. They are still developing.
1. I have a daughter at Baylor. I have female students at Baylor. I have any number of friends with daughters at Baylor. I know many Baylor coeds through my kids. Baylor simply must be a safe place.
2. That multiple sexual assaults occurred is awful and inexcusable. My heart breaks for the victims.
3. That the football program did not comply with the law is inexcusable. That the football program did not comply with Baylor policy - such as it was - is inexcusable.
4. The university's policies in place for dealing with the reality of college students - football players or otherwise - in the 21st century were naive. Those policies have evolved, and the Regents' action indicates a push for them to continue to evolve to the very cutting edge. We can debate the politics of Title IX and "in loco parentis" and government regulation all we want, but the University has legal responsibilities here, and it is now stepping up to them in what appears to me to be a first rate way.
5. The critics who say "why didn't Baylor act sooner" of course have a point, but hiring a preeminent national law firm with no ties to Baylor, giving that firm complete access, waiting for that firm to compile evidence and report, digesting that report, and then acting on it seem to me to be reasonable steps under these circumstances.
6. Self-congratulatory Facebook posts of "look how brilliantly and clearly we responded" are offset by the brutal attacks I am reading and hearing to the effect, to quote the Houston Chronicle, of "no school deserves it more." Neither extreme is credible.
7. Baylor is much more than the sum of its parts. I have barely met Coach Briles, know Judge Starr only slightly better, and have no contact at all with McCaw, but I am confident in saying that they are people who work, or worked, for Baylor but do not constitute the Baylor I know. I know Baylor too well. The Regents are also not Baylor, but they appear to be trying to reach for Baylor's truest vision and purpose, and for that they deserve some appreciation.
8. I am justifiably ashamed that these events happened on and around the campus that has meant and still means so much to me.
9. I am justifiably proud that Baylor has stepped up - as no university that I know of has - to make clear the priority of student safety, following the law, and doing the right thing over winning football games.
10. Complaints about the overreach of Title IX, "why did those girls get in those situations," "when you win they are all out to get you," "this happens everywhere," and "the media/ESPN caused an overreaction" are all irrelevant, or at least not important in the moment, whether they are true or not. The law is the law, and it must be followed unless and until it is changed. Victim-blaming is always tenuous but is completely out of place when your process does not allow for victims to be treated with fairness and respect in the first place. The sports-page analysis is so secondary to the issues here that it can be addressed months from now.
I am sure we will learn more - both good and bad - in the coming weeks. The NCAA will do whatever the NCAA will do.
I am so sorry for the victims - the assaulted, the innocent caught up in the shrapnel, and the many who do so much good for, in, and through Baylor whose name and reputation will be affected by the actions of the few.
With great power comes great responsibility. With money and exposure and fame and adulation comes even greater responsibility. Regardless of from where the attacks have come - and here they have come more from within than from without - Baylor is better than this.
It is time to take our medicine.
Sometimes the way to light the ways of time is to stand up and be responsible for what you have done, or allowed, or encouraged.
I will still go to the football games and fling my green and gold afar. I believe we can win the right way and don't need criminals on the team to do it. I guess we will see.


Now, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, six months later, I add these thoughts.

1. To Those Who Criticize the Board of Regents - How can you possibly have enough information to know that what they did was wrong? The information presented was devastating and damning. I know we don't know everything. I know that many of you are crying out for the university to pay the law firm to write up a tell-all for the world to read. To what end? Are you so distrustful that you believe that Coach Briles was innocent and that the Regents are hiding something that will prove their own fault? Really? Are you suddenly an expert in how to run a multi-million dollar enterprise like Baylor? Are you an expert in how to delegate responsibility to a university administration, especially one run by a non-educator who believes (perhaps rightly) that he is one of the smartest men on the planet? Did you ever seek "full disclosure" of information upon which the Regents acted before, whether it was in the firing of a president or the building of a stadium or the addition of a degree or the determination of campus rules? Calls for "transparency" and "reform" are ringing through cyberspace with no detail at all. What do you really want? Why are you in a rush to "drain the swamp" as though the Board of Regents were Tammany Hall?

(Footnote - the number of my Facebook friends who publish these criticisms who also publish or published multiple pro-Donald Trump messages is interesting.)

I understand the seeking of a scapegoat, but I ask you to consider what the Regents did. They reacted in the name of campus safety, Christian values, and the good name of the university.

Is winning football games really more important?

I am not naive. I know that winning games has helped Baylor's image. I know that Coach Briles is largely responsible for that new stadium. I know he deserves a lot of credit for increased applications, enrollments, and giving - although I give Robert Griffin at least as much credit. But Baylor is Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana, not Pro Football.

Do you believe that Coach Briles got a raw deal? Really? After all we know now, are you still willing to say that criminal acts by multiple football players are not at some level the responsibility of the head man, the man who intentionally brought to campus players with a sketchy history because he (admirably) thought he could help them find the straight and narrow? After all we know about the choices made and the messages sent to complaining students?

Was firing the coach going too far? Maybe. Maybe a one-year suspension without pay would have been the right answer. But if so, we are now arguing about the fine points of personnel policy, and if those of us with extremely limited information are going to start micro-managing those decisions, that is the beginning of the end.

I do not know many of the Regents, but the ones I do know are honorable and smart - some brilliant - people who have the best interests of Baylor and the cause of Christ as their goals. If they made mistakes, they did so honestly and with the best of intentions. It is time for folks to get off their backs.

2. To Those Who Criticize the University for Continuing to Play Football - Why punish the innocent? I have Facebook friends - some of whom are alumni and close friends of mine - who have jumped on the Paul Finebaum bandwagon, thrown up their hands in disgust, and declared by all that's holy that the only decent thing to do is to self-impose the Death Penalty in some glorious penitential conflagration. From the Finebaums and others who don't know or who hate Baylor - including graduates of other nearby schools - these pleas come across not as well-thought-out analyses but rather as gleeful chances to point fingers and dance in the ashes. When they come from alums, they sound like embarrassment and disaffection. Either way, they make no sense to me. Baylor has taken more steps in the face of these events than any major-college-football university in history - the head coach, athletic director, and president are gone; signees were voluntarily released from their letters of intent (I don't see UT, LSU, or anybody else with a coaching change doing that); and the university has very publicly stated that football prowess takes a back seat at Baylor to safety and doing the right thing.

Are you really so caught up in the politically correct media-approved response that you would throw the Bears out with the bathwater?

(Footnote - the number of my Facebook friends who publish these criticisms who also publish or published multiple pro-Hillary Clinton messages is interesting.)

3. To the Assistant Coaches - You should be ashamed of yourselves. I do not know any of you, and I am assuming that you are all upstanding, honorable men. I am happy to dismiss the two very unfortunate social media posts by one coach's wife as the frustrations of a good person whose father, husband, and brother are all central players in this. You have been asked to work with and for Coach Grobe, who by all accounts is a good guy thrown into an impossible situation, but you did not sign up for him and did not know him, so of course that was tough for you too. Your loyalty to Coach Briles is commendable and to be expected.

I don't know how much responsibility, if any, any of you bears with regard to the criminal situation. The Regents blamed the non-football side of the house that reported to Coach Briles, and you were spared. So I am not willing to assume you knew more and did nothing, or worse, you helped to shush the victims ... although those accusations are certainly out there.

I am not, however, willing to dismiss the incredible destructiveness of the Friday Night Massacre before the TCU game. I am not willing to dismiss the poor taste of the money-bag-emoji Tweets after getting bowl eligibility, especially when you cannot lead the team to a single further victory. I have watched these players in every game (albeit one game on TV), and they are not under the same direction they were earlier in the year. That is on you. Nobody blames the players, at least primarily.

And if any of you dares to say a word against the school or decry how you have been treated - again, I am giving the one coach's wife a pass on her tweets - I will not be willing to dismiss your public disdain for the university, which kept you under very trying circumstances when it had absolutely no obligation to do so. For you to speak badly of Baylor now - especially in light of your lousy performance - would be beyond the pale.

4. To the Fair Weather Baylor Fans - I really do not get it. We sat through - and generally enjoyed and rooted for - years of mediocre-to-decent football punctuated by a few really good (i.e. 8-3) years under Coach Teaff, whom we consider a hero. We sat through - and rooted for, even if we did not enjoy - years after that of truly bad teams. We saw losses to UNLV and North Texas and Army. We cheered when we beat A&M in overtime or upset Texas. We struggled through years of Big XII doormat status. Now, after six bowls in a row, you suddenly have changed personalities? You now care more about how many uniform combinations and 70-point games the Bears can muster than with what kind of kids we are developing? You now are going to leave the Kansas State game at halftime trailing by a touchdown because the temperature is in the 50s?

You ought to be ashamed. If you thought you were helping to create a big-time college football powerhouse, you have a lot to learn. Watch Michigan State fans today, as their team is finishing a three win season. Watch Ole Miss fans as their team, once ranked in the Top 5, flames out and misses a bowl. See how those fans react to their teams next year.

5. Finally, to the Baylor Administration, Regents, and All Who Fancy Themselves Leaders or Influencers of Baylor - Winning is great. I love to brag about my team. But the essence of Baylor is better, and I will brag about my school as long as we stand for the right thing. You are not led by the media, by the boosters, by the BaylorFans.com editorialists, or by the Playoff Committee. Your Leader is far more important, and most of us are following the same Leader. We are marching with you.

Let's all take a deep breath, fix what is broken, and remain thankful that there is a Baylor who seeks to follow Christ and educate our students in a full-scale university that plays Big XII sports and teaches our kids how to live and lead in the world. There are plenty of Bible schools and plenty of football factories, and God bless them if that is what they want to be. We have never been either one, and I don't really think we want to start being either now.