Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Doubt

This blog contains spoilers about the movie "Doubt", so skip it if you don't want to find out about the movie.

What an interesting movie. Gena and I saw it together, and we had the same conversation going home that I suspect most couples did after seeing it: "Well, was he guilty or not?" Gena says yes. I say no. Gena says she is about 80-20 sure he is guilty. I say I am about 60-40 sure he is not.

In the aftermath of all of the priest sex scandals over the past decade or so, it is easy to see why many would decide Father Flynn is guilty. On top of that history, consider things like the clues that are dropped, his clear abuse of his power in little things like taking Sister Aloysius' chair when he comes to her office, Donald's mother's suspicions/intuition, and Father Flynn's own resignation in the face of the accusations, and you can see the point of view that says he is guilty.

On the other hand, there is no evidence of his guilt. Not an iota. Even Sister Aloysius admits that.

Add to that the fact that we like Father Flynn and we don't like Sister Aloysius. Add to that the fact that we like Sister James. And of course you cannot forget the consistent denials of the priest, a man who otherwise appears to be honest and righteous. You can see how the movie makes the case for his innocence, or at least for our finding a way to find him innocent.

I am addicted to evidence. That is of course a function of my job as a trial lawyer. It is also a remnant of my debate training. I think evidence is crucial. Before we toss somebody out on his ear, before we accuse him of immorality and of abuse, before we conclude that he is a pervert, we need evidence.

On the other hand, we absolutely must protect our children. Is it wrong to act on "certainty" based on your experience, as Sister Aloysius does here? Shouldn't we err on the side of protecting the innocent?

I hope that the confusion generated by this movie and the resulting conversations we have after we see it teach us all something about how we treat other people, about how we reach our conclusions. Are we gossip-mongers? Are we guilty of listening to and relying on gossip? Do we ignore the facts because of our preconceptions? Or, do we ignore the obvious because we don't like the source? Do we choose not to see what is there to be seen because we demand a level of rigorous proof that is unreasonable?

I am fascinated by talking to Gena about this movie. Here is a very intelligent person, more well-read and better educated than most jurors I will ever see, and she concludes that it is much more likely than not that this man has horribly wronged young Donald and, by extension, his church. And, more importantly, she is willing to reach this conclusion while admitting that there is no real evidence to support it - rather, it is a "feel", a reaction to body language and indirect suggestion, a reliance on experience and understanding. And she may well be right. I am, after all, reaching my conclusion based on my "feel" as well, for the movie gives no evidence, other than his own bare denial, of the priest's innocence either.

That teaches me a lot about talking to juries. It is not enough for me to paint a clear picture based on the evidence. People need more than evidence... they need to know that they are right. They need to feel it.

Life is rarely as clear as we would want it. How do we deal with the cloudiness, the imprecision, the guesswork? How do we treat other people? How do we react to problems that should be apparent?

Obviously, I don't have the answers to all of this. Just questions right now.

But I do know these two things: On one hand, I know that innuendo alone can never be enough to create a value judgment when it comes to another human being. I know that gossip is destructive. I know that preconceptions are often misconceptions.

On the other hand, I know that we have to act when we find injustice. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Life is not simple. To paraphrase the movie, life is full of doubt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Mystery of Christmas - Where Is the Child?

Some are offended by the suggestion that there is "mystery" in Christmas. They hold onto the truth of the coming of God to earth - the reality of Emmanuel - with their very lives, and to suggest that this truth encompasses "mystery" somehow suggests that the Christmas story may be less than true. It is as if they have grown beyond any mystery in Christmas. A child born of a virgin is simply true. An inexplicable star needs no explanation beyond God's plan.

And I agree with them, as far as the truth of the story goes. I believe in that virgin birth. I do not believe the Magi's star was a supernova or a comet - I just believe it was God's miraculous sign. And I too hold on to the reality of Emmanuel with my very life.

But I still find mystery in the story, not in a scary or demeaning sense but rather in the idea of challenge, of complexity beyond my ken, of seeing through a glass darkly. After all, we walk by faith, not by sight. Maybe a better way to phrase it is to talk about the "questions" of Christmas. I hope that, in holding onto the truth of the gospel found in the events of the narrative and the reality of shepherds and angels, we do not stop ourselves from asking natural questions.

There is, of course, a completely different side of the coin. For some of you readers, the Christmas story is so commercialized, or so fairy-tale, or simply so unbelievable that you choose not to ask any questions that might actually lead down a road of faith.

We all (from the most churchgoing among us to those of you who never darken a church door) know the Christmas story well, from the word going out from Caesar Augustus to the days being "accomplished that she should be delivered" to the swaddling clothes to the heavenly host to the flight to Egypt to Mary keeping all of these things in her heart. Some have trouble coming up with any questions about it beyond “What Child is This?” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” After that, our questions of Christmas most likely are wondering which of the twelve days has those leaping lords and who in the world are Jeannette and Isabella?

To me, "mystery" is not a bad word - it is a recognition of the supernatural that cannot be fully comprehended by us humans. And when we cannot think of the questions, we have bypassed the mystery. We have wandered without a guiding star and grown too old to remember the glow of Decembers past when the child in us asked about mangers and shepherds and wondered about gold and frankincense and myrrh.

And therein is the key - we have grown too old, or too jaded, or too cocksure, or too uninterested, or too busy. We need, for a moment or an hour or a season, to reverse that growth process and find a child within us.

We need to find a child within us so that we can once again open our eyes to the wonderful mysteries of which we sing this season, lest we lose all the happiness of caroling. It is the child within us who wonders why the Christ child has not even a cradle in which to rock or a soft pillow for His head. That our Savior, Shepherd, and King could come with a mission to die and become our brother, lamb, and servant is a puzzle around a mystery wrapped in a question.

We need to find a child within us to ask “Why Joseph? Why Bethlehem? Why Mary? Why trust such an apparently ordinary girl with the One who would walk on water and deliver us all?” We would have thought that God would come with kingly crowns and a regal throne. If we take the time to ask the questions, we shrug our collective shoulders and scratch our heads - after all, to us, this is such a strange way to save the world. Where is His splendor?

We are not going to provide, nor can we find for ourselves, all of the answers. Trying to understand fully all the aspects of the loving gifts of the God of the rainbow and of the manger is like trying to capture the wind on the water or measure a mother's love. The questions lead us to more questions. Yet, somehow, although we do not understand it, God's coming down to Bethlehem turns December to May and transforms a chilly morning to a smiling field ready for harvest.

But I think we have to ask the questions. We ask not to demonstrate any lack of faith or to explain that the story is less than real. Instead, we ask because we have to find the child inside, to get past the old traditions and the adult rush and the grownup's too-quick and too-simple answers. We ask the questions to see the mystery and to wait with faith to hear the angels still singing their song. Where is that child? How do we find a child within us?

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

To find a child in you, I think you must find the child in you. When you let that child's peace find you, you once again see the mystery, share the wonder of the ringing bells, and, with the angels, sing “Alleluia” to our king in the silent night.

While we cannot answer all of the questions, with the faith of that child we can answer the question “Where is the child?”. He is with us. That is the reality of Emmanuel, one I do not question. He is our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace. To those who are asking, "Where is the child?", let us tell the story of the Jesus child. The One who brings us light. Our Savior and brother the same. Our heavenly king. The Savior of all. Surely this must be God's Son.

Gloria in excelsis!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Technology and Friends

What a difference a generation makes.

Tonight, I got an email from one who has been a friend since we were in the third grade. This week, I have had telephone conversations with four friends who live in other states. I routinely talk with my best friends, who are in Nashville, San Antonio, Waco, and other places that are not in the same area code where I live. Through Facebook, I keep up with a number of friends and have reconnected with many more.

I remember how precious long distance telephone minutes were when I was growing up. We would speak to my grandparents occasionally, and only briefly. I remember the first time my Dad's job had a Wats line (that's free long distance for you youngsters) ... We would pack up the car on Saturdays and go to his office to make some calls.

I remember when I was about 13 meeting for the first time the man who was my Dad's best friend growing up. The same man was best man in my parents' wedding. I had never met him before, and my Dad had not talked to him in years.

I remember hearing stories about friends of my Mom's but never actually seeing them or hearing about Mom's actually talking to them. Since Mom has always been a letter writer, I would occasionially know when she was sitting down to write a long epistle to Carmen or Sue or Edith or somebody else to catch them up on the last several months or years. Occasionally, one would come to visit, and it would be a grand reunion to review the past several years of no contact.

The change is not because I am a better friend than my parents are. It is a function of technology. Email and cell phones with free long distance and Facebook and the like have made long distance friendships so much easier. Yes, it would still be better to be in the same town and see these friends face to face, but how good it is that we need not wait years to catch up.

Come to think of it, I guess this blog helps too.

I am grateful for this technology. I am more grateful for my friends.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Professional Perspectives

I am married to a singer. Not just a wannabe, shower-singing, little-ditty-humming singer, but a degreed, qualified, professional singer. A voice teacher. The kind of singer whom people (like me) want to hear again and again.

She is a trained musician, and that gives her a perspective that I don't have. Oh, I am a "singer" too, if you count community theatre roles and a lifelong church choir habit, but I am not in her league. I have never had a voice lesson, and nobody is going to mistake me for a real soloist. Gena, on the other hand, gets asked to sing the national anthem at major civic events. She is a real musician.

And that can be a curse to her.

This last Sunday night was our annual singing of Handel's Messiah at our church. For me, it was all good. It was inspiring, uplifting, and transcendant. For Gena, it was enjoyable, but... you see, Gena knows things that I don't know. She sees things in a vocal score that are invisible, or at least indecipherable, to me. And that means that she knows when a soloist is less than perfect.

I don't mean to suggest that Gena is overly critical or that she did not enjoy Messiah, because neither of those things would be true. I only mean that her perspective is so different from mine that we experience concerts very differently.

I suppose it is not all that different from how we watch "Law and Order" together. She follows the story; I am astounded by what I consider to be outlandishly poor courtroom antics. I still enjoy the show, but I see it through an entirely different lens.

I think there is a lesson here. It may be our professions that determine the lens through which we look, but often there are other factors. It could be simple experience, socioeconomic background, age, deeply ingrained "truths" learned long ago that we cannot now even consider to be "wrong," or any of a number of other things. I suppose even race and gender shape our lenses (as much as I do not want to admit it), at least on some things.

There are two points from this lesson:
1. Recognize your perspective. No matter how incomprehensible someone else's view of the same facts you see may be to you, the differences do not necessarily make either of you wrong. If I learned nothing else from competitive debate, I learned this: there are often more than two sides to every question, and reasonable people can see the same thing quite differently.
2. Don't forget to enjoy the show. Even when your perspective alters, clouds, or defines your view, remember that most of those in the audience (who have never had a voice lesson or tried a case) are content. That is not because they are ignorant; it is because the music is beautiful.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why I Watch "Saving Grace"

There are plenty of reasons not to watch this show. It is R rated, at least as far as free TV goes, because of its language and sexual situations that leave nothing to the imagination. The crime stories are often not very complex. The main character is a truly reprehensible person, albeit one with a good heart.

If you want to condemn the show for being trashy, you would be right. The main character, Grace, leads a man into adultery and breaks up his marriage. She is sexually promiscuous (and not just with the man whose marriage she has broken up). She drinks too much and smokes too much. She lies. Her language is filthy and blasphemous. She treats her friends badly.

OK, yeah, but I still watch it.

If you don't know the show, the twist is that Grace is visited by an angel. Not your typical wings-and-halo kind of angel ... not even Michael Landon. This angel dips snuff and looks like a construction worker or an out of work bass guitarist from the sixties.

But he loves Grace. Not in any sort of romantic way. In a biblical way. He is not in the business of condemning her, even as he makes it clear that he does not approve (and God does not approve) of her many transgressions. But he is more interested in leading her to God than he is in taking potshots at her, no matter how big a target she makes of herself.

Yes, I wish he spoke more explicitly about Jesus, and he has made some troubling statements about Islam. I don't claim that this show perfectly displays the church or lays out the gospel.

But, it makes a very important point - the process of sharing God with someone like Grace is just that: a process. Earl (the angel) is in this for the long haul, and he is building a relationship with Grace based on honesty and love. It is in many ways a model for us Christians to follow, even if we cannot disappear at will and pop over to France for lunch like Earl can.

The show does not take the easy way out. Grace has heard the message and seen evidence of the handiwork of God, and the typical story would be for her to hit her knees at the first opportunity. But life does not always work like that. The second most typical story would be for her confidently to proclaim her rejection of God and to shoo the angel away forever. But life does not always work like that, either. In this story, she is - usually, apparently - having nothing to do with what the angel says but she is intrigued by him and his caring for her and the relationship that he is building with her.

Again, it is a process, on both sides.

I don't know where this show is going. I have intentionally not read much about it in the press, but I won't be surprised if the producers and stars are not really interested in re-telling the Greatest Story Ever Told. I may be very disappointed by the ending, but I am intrigued by the journey.

Without ever supporting her bad habits or condoning (or even excusing) a single one of her sins, Earl is nonetheless building credibility with Grace. He is teaching her as much as she will learn, and he is leading her to a place where she will have to make a decision. He has helped her in ways that can only be supernatural, and while she may exercise her choice to ignore the obvious work of God in her life, she cannot pretend that she is not being given a chance to see Him.

So often, Christians are portrayed as judgmental. We are lumped in with those who march against ___________ (pick your sin-of-the-month). It is not original with me to say that it does not make sense for us to expect non-believers to act like believers. We seem to be angry that they act like exactly who they are, non-believers, and we forget that the only reason we (usually) act differently is because the Holy Spirit indwells us, because we have accepted the gifts God offers us. (Remember Paul's words: "... and such were some of you.") And yet we expect those who do not know the Holy Spirit to act as if they do know Him. Instead of indicting non-believers for acting like exactly what they are, we ought to be in the business of introducing them to the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who convicts of sin; we don't and can't, and we should quit trying. But often we omit the introductions and skip straight to the expectations of changed behavior. Hollywood has noticed, and Hollywood seems usually to portray us only in the judgmental light.

But not this show. Earl loves Grace and continues to seek her in spite of herself. Her best female friend on the show, clearly a Christian, also continues to develop a spiritual relationship with her. I understand this best friend character to be one who prays for Grace and looks for ways to share her faith with her.

You have to put up with a lot of language and weekly TV-MA or PG-13/R scenes, but the storyline here is unique, and the perspective is mature. This is not one for your kids, but it is one for your thought.

Don't expect a perfect rendition of your doctrine, but watch to see how the angel and the Christian try to work with the sinners in this show. I don't know if Grace will be saved or not, but I know that I want to find out.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Religion and the 2008 Election

Some stories, all true, before I start...

Last weekend, before the election, an intelligent, thoughtful Christian friend of mine told me that, despite his admiration for John McCain, he was voting for Obama. Saying that the biggest threat to America is "fundamentalism of any stripe," he unabashedly said that he would vote Democratic "because of Sarah Palin's religion."

On the night before the election, I received a forwarded email under the heading "Let us Pray." It included lines like "I was very dismayed when, recently, a member of my church said to me with great resignation that she was afraid Obama will take the presidency. These words came from someone that in the past has been a great prayer warrior. What is happening was my question!! Why are we Christians settling for the loss of our Christian/Judeo heritage, not issuing a battle cry and falling to our knees and taking our country back?" The email went on to cite school prayer, the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places, the statement that we allow mosques in America to "proclaim anti-Christian, anti-American threats and terrorism," the claim that Senator Obama will not wear the American flag on his lapel, and a reference to the political views of Mr. Obama's pastor. After citing the need to "stop the undermining of our country by the Muslims", it includes the line, "We should be afraid, very afraid because our apathy is leading us to perdition. It is time for all Christian Americans to raise the battle cry and take our nation back! Maybe McCain on his own cannot defeat Obama, but our God can and He will if we take to our knees in prayer and raise a mighty cry to the heavens." Leaving aside the poor grammar and punctuation, the call to prayer for a McCain victory stunned me.

Then, on election day, I saw multiple reports from African-American churches in Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, and elsewhere. The repetitive theme was that church members were praying for an Obama victory. I heard and read stories of parishioners' fervant beliefs that God would give the election to Obama after a few more prayers.


I find the choice to vote against Sarah Palin based on her religion to be appalling. Equating "fundamentalist" Christianity with fundamentalist Islam is silly, akin to saying that a compact disc is the same thing as a compact car. At their worst, fundamentalist Christians (allegedly) want to ban some books and appoint pro-life judges. At their worst, fundamentalist Muslims (empirically) want to set off bombs and kill thousands at a time. Sarah Palin is a member of an evangelical church with conservative beliefs. To disqualify her from public office because of her religion is intolerance at its worst, and to vote for the liberal candidate based on such a view is irony in its highest form.

I find the emails labeling Obama as "anti-Christian" equally appalling. This is a man who proclaims his Christian faith, writes about his Christian faith, and puts it in action as he feels led.

I find the claim that God wants any candidate to win based on skin color to be amazing.

I am not judging the sincerity of any of these candidates - but for Christians to proclaim that God is for one candidate and to attack the opposition on religious grounds seems backwards to me. There are greater goals here than political, and we Christians are eating our own.

I am also disturbed by the repeated findings of guilt by association. I do not share all political views of anybody whom I love and admire, including my pastor, my wife, my father, my mother, or you. We were not voting for Jeremiah Wright or Dan Yeary, so the views of the respective pastors are irrelevant.

I don't think conservatives really wanted to start the morality fight in this election, since the Republican candidate, widely described as having a serious temper problem, left his first wife to marry his current wife, who in turn is heir to a beer fortune. I know that Senator McCain has publicly repented and described his divorce as the worst mistake of his life, and I applaud that. I just think it is hard to throw stones about what Mr. Obama wears on his lapel.

As for school prayer, posting the Ten Commandments, etc..., I firmly agree with Obama on these issues. (Actually, so does McCain.) Perhaps that will be the subject of a different blog, but for this blog, I hope it is sufficient to say that I am a Christian, and there are many conservative Christians like me who honestly disagree with the emailer I quoted earlier. I take offense at the notion that we are leading the nation into perdition.

My point is not to defend Obama. I voted against him. My point is that it is self-destructive to the kingdom for us to shoot at other Christians in this way.

There is a legitimate point of view that says that this election represented a turning point in the moral fabric of our country and that Christians were and are obligated to speak up on issues. While I am not sure about the "turning point" nature of this moment in time, I wholeheartedly support every American Christian's right to speak out and be active in the political world (so long as they don't use the pulpit and the "worship service" to do it). Feel free to disagree with President-Elect Obama on any issue you want to - I do. If your religion is the basis for your feelings, trumpet that. My faith informs my opinion, and I don't shrink from that. But neither do I declare that the opponent is not a Christian or that God is on my side.

Let's not demonize other Christians on religious grounds. That is not what the Master is about in this world. I don't believe it is ours to quote "by their fruits you shall know them" and then declare that God has chosen a candidate. Keep the political fight political and join hands with other Christians to keep the religious imperatives religious. Render unto Caesar...

And by the way, I agree wholeheartedly that we should pray for the election, our nation, and our leaders, whoever they are.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fireproof

I did not want to see this movie.

I did not like "Facing the Giants", the last Christian-themed movie from the same church group that produced "Fireproof". I thought "Giants" trivialized an important Bible story - David and Goliath - by selling the idea that God really cares about who wins football games. Yes, I know the football game in the movie was a metaphor for bigger life battles, but I just thought the movie failed in what it was trying to do. So, I was not very excited about seeing "Fireproof".

I saw "Fireproof" tonight, and I was touched.

To tell the truth, it is not a great movie. The writing is predictable, the acting is terribly uneven, and the story about the marriage is not all that realistic. So, I understand some of the bad reviews I have read in the secular press. On the other hand, the emotion in the story is real, the earnestness of Kirk Cameron's character's father is dead on, and the scriptural focus is accurate. So, I understand some of the good reviews I have read in the Christian press.

It is interesting, and instructive, that a movie like this can produce such livid negative reviews. The secular press (interestingly, not the New York Times review, which was actually lukewarm) has produced a number of vicious articles about the movie. Undoubtedly, some in the church will take these reviews as badges of honor, pointing out that the scripture always draws pointed responses and arguing that the movie must be hitting close to home.

I look at it differently. I was touched by the movie because I already believed - and thus resonated with - the basic points of the movie: we love best when we understand Christ's love for us; God intends for marriage to be permanent; and salvation is real. I don't know if non-Christians will understand any of that from watching this movie; I am not at all sure that non-Christians can hear those messages in the tone this movie presents them. I am just not convinced that taking a sermon out of a pulpit and putting it on the big screen disguises the fact that it is a sermon, and I know lots and lots of people who are not the least bit interested in sermons.

If you know me, you know that I am not saying that the gospel should not be presented. It can be and it must be. But as I learned from my years in competitive debate, a little audience adaptation is appropriate. If you read the reviews of "Fireproof" in The Village Voice or in The Onion or in the Austin, Texas newspaper, you will see that there are plenty of moviegoers - or at least professional movie critics - who have reacted so violently against the movie that any point that was trying to be made was not only lost but ridiculed.

I am glad I saw the movie, in the same way that I am glad I sang in a hymn festival at my church last weekend. But I have plenty of friends whom I did not invite to the hymn festival, because inviting them would have been a waste of time. I am glad that a Baptist Church in Georgia made the movie - it is a courageous act to intervene into the Hollywood world with a movie like this, and I believe it is their honest attempt to use their gifts and resources creatively.

But I hope that others in the church will be aware of the kind of reviews that an evangelical attempt like this produces and conclude not that the reviewers are wrong or evil but rather that there are different ways to speak to different people. One size does not fit all. I have lots of friends who may read this blog because they know me, but they are not about to go see "Fireproof", nor are they about to darken the door of a church. I hope they respect me, and I hope that they consider some of my points of view - and my faith - because I have built up some credence with them. I would lose a lot of credibility with them if I dragged them to the theatre to see this movie, or if I made them sit through a hymn festival. One day, maybe they will be ready to enjoy a hymn festival with me, but not now.

The message of "Fireproof" is true for everyone. The medium will not work for everyone. We Christians have to learn the difference.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Channeling My Inner English Teacher

Is anybody else out there as frustrated by the paucity of grammar and punctuation skills displayed in print and on television? Am I just overly obsessive about this?

In 7th grade, Mrs. Bowen gave me a 34 on my second theme. Of the 66 points counted off, 65 of them were because of one mistake, made 13 times at 5 points per. The mistake: on my outline, I put letters where I should have had numbers and numbers where I should have had letters. Truly just one mistake, and in fact it was correct for me to repeat it - once I had started wrong, it would have been silly to change in midstream. Still, I got a 34. On my next theme, I had 5 points taken off for using the wrong sized paper clip.

Did these punishments fit the crimes? I don't know. But I do know that I learned to be careful when writing, and by extension, when speaking. Associates who have worked for me in law firms have learned that I am pretty careful about these things and am not shy about the use of the red pen when reading drafts. Mrs. Bowen would be proud.

So, today I rant. Admittedly, a lot of my television "news" watching is SportsCenter, and maybe Trey Wingo and Scott Van Pelt should not be held to the same standards as Tom Brokaw. But I think the problems I am going to list extend beyond ESPN.

1. The amazing overuse of reflexive pronouns. "This is a problem between himself and myself" is a horrible sentence.

2. The failure to understand when to use the first person objective pronoun. "This is for John and I."

3. The use of the apostrophe to make things plural. "We fix your sprinkler's."

4. The use of plural verbs with the singular word none. "None of the coaches have produced a winner."

I know the list goes on and on. I know I am ranting.

But does anybody care anymore?

Is this just something between myself and I and none of you reader's care about it?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Disagreement and "Closed-Mindedness"

Don't ask me why, but I found myself reading the Huffington Post website today. I don't mean that as a particularly political statement - I don't read the Drudge Report any more often than I read HuffPost, so I am an equal opportunity ignorer of the partisan political bloggers, most of the time. That is OK - I doubt many of them read my blog either!

Anyway, I was reading the latest from Adam McKay. He - the writer of "Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman" with three years writing for Saturday Night Live - has some strong political opinions. In the midst of his rant, the basis of which is to claim that the American press fails to attack Republicans because it is in the pocket of conservative corporations (I promise, that's his point!), he makes this statement:
I'm not even getting into the fact that the religious right teaches closed-mindedness, so it's almost impossible to gain new voters from their pool because people who disagree with them are agents of the devil.


I do not consider myself to be a member of the "religious right", but Adam McKay probably would consider me to be. I am, after all, a Baptist. I am moderately pro-life. ("Moderately" means that until I am certain about when life begins, I give the benefit of the doubt in favor of life, but I am not out bombing clinics.) I find holes in classical evolution as an explanation for ordinary adaptation. All other things being equal, I prefer smaller government to bigger government. And so on.

I am not, however, a disciple of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. I never sent a penny to the Moral Majority. I am as offended by extremist conservative views as I am by extremist liberal ones, and I think that the church is not the place for political discourse. Christians should certainly participate in government, and our religion can and must inform and influence our political choices and actions; but what we do in church and as church is so important as to make the civic pale in comparison.

OK, enough for the disclaimer. The purpose for this blog is two-fold.
(1) Whether or not we consider ourselves members of the so-called "religious right," we Christians have to be concerned if our testimony and our influence are considered to be "closed-mindedness." I remember in college hearing the phrase, "It is ok to be closed-minded if you are right." Well, no it isn't. Just because you have reached a conclusion should not mean that you have not considered or will not continue to consider alternative positions, and failing to ask the hard questions is fatal. I hope we are all open-minded enough to ask questions and to let our faith and our positions be challenged - rest assured that they will be challenged sooner or later anyway, whether we want them to be or not, so why not get some practice? More importantly, I believe that we Christians are not doing a good job of communicating the fact that we can accept a challenge to our faith, that we can consider and attempt to answer questions, that we recognize that thinking people may have different positions. That does not mean that we become universalist. It does not mean that any sincerely held position is acceptable. It does not mean that we have to change any of our views, necessarily. It does not mean that we have to decide that there are "many ways to God" or that fundamental questions have myriad answers.

But it does mean that we have to show respect to those who disagree. We have to let them say their piece, and we have to be listening when they say it. Why otherwise should they listen to us? Whether we are personally responsible for the stereotype or not, the fact that "religious" people are associated with closed-mindedness has to be at the forefront of our thoughts, and we have to fight that sterotype.

We are not closed-minded - we have carefully considered questions and been led by the Spirit of God to certain conclusions. And sometimes the Spirit has been silent and we have come to conclusions on our own. And many of us disagree with each other. All of that is fine.

(2) We absolutely must dispel the idea that we believe that those who disagree with us are "of the devil." This seemingly silly attack hits closer to home than many of us would like to admit. I have heard too many fellow believers dismiss dissent as some sort of spiritual foul - we want to blow a whistle and throw a flag rather than deal with the disagreement - and this happens in church, much less in the civil arena! How we can forget that the world will know us by our love and that we must be kind is beyond me, but we do. We label and we sneer and we treat those who disagree as though they were Satanic.

And the world notices. It is no wonder that the Adam McKays of the world are sardonic in their description of the "religious". Many of the "religious" deserve it... I don't mean to throw stones - I deserve it. Too often I am too quick to look for some underlying motive behind a position that differs from my own.

I hold strong political and religious views, and in the right setting, I am happy to express them and debate with those who differ. But when the "religious" are characterized as closed-minded folks who think opponents are of the devil, we Christians have to wonder if we have been debating and expressing as disciples of Christ or whether we left our Christianity at the churchhouse steps when we entered the political fray.

Nothing I say here is meant to lessen any Christian's zeal for his or her deeply held political positions, and I am certainly not trying to sway anyone's vote. My concern is with process: how we say things, not with what we say. I don't want my political voice to be irrelevant because of the actions of other Christians who are careless, and I don't want to silence their effectiveness because of what appears to others to be my closed-mindedness.

And one other point - it is no excuse to say that people who differ from us, the "irreligious left" if you will, are equally closed-minded and snide. So what? Since when do we gauge our behavior by the behavior of the world?

Disagreement is healthy in a church, in a marriage, in a country. But in all three cases, disagreement can be destructive - I firmly believe the potential problem is not the substance of the disagreement (Yes, some positions are out of bounds in each of the three examples, but those exceptions are rare.) but rather in how it is voiced.

Let's be careful.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Talkin' 'bout My Generation

Birthdays have almost never bothered me. I turned 30 with no angst and survived my 40th (black balloons from my wife and all black outfits worn by my kids notwithstanding!) just fine, thank you very much. In fact, the only birthday that has really given me pause was my 33rd, when my friend Jeff remarked, "33?! That's how old Jesus was when he died!" Kind of makes you wonder about how much you have really accomplished!

But suddenly, I am having some different thoughts about my age, and they are not caused by a birthday. Instead, these thoughts spring from the presidential campaign. On one hand is Barack Obama, who is three and a half years older than I am and has kids in the same age bracket as my two younger children. On the other side is Sarah Palin, who is less than a year older than I am.

Again, I am struck by wondering how much I have really accomplished.

Somehow, the presidency has always been for people at least a couple of generations ahead of me. Now, it is not anymore. Or at least it does not have to be.

My new boss is my age, more or less. And his new boss is my age, more or less. My church is searching for a pastor, and I face the very real possibility that my new pastor may turn out to be younger than I am.

I am not having a crisis about this. I am generally satisfied with where I am in life and what I still have left to do. But I am noticing.

The beard is coming in a little whiter than last fall. The knees creak a little bit more. Starting to work out again after taking some months off is a little harder this time than it was the last time. My high school class had its 25th reunion and my youth group had a reunion this spring (see my May 30 post), and I discovered that at least two of my contemporaries are grandparents.

Many of my favorite songs from high school now routinely play on the oldies station.

Again, no crisis... but I am noticing.

This is the best part of life, so far. My kids are growing and learning and becoming more and more fun, albeit more and more of a challenge. My abilities are solidifying into a set of strengths that I can use in a number of ways. My marriage is secure. My work is fulfilling. My service is varied.

But for the first time, I am starting to notice those numbers, and those aches, and those fleeting days.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Michael Phelps, Batman, and Other Heroes

It was an amazing thing. On Saturday night, I was invited by some of my company's lawyers to a gathering in a luxury suite at a AA baseball game in Frisco. (Yes, in Texas, even the minor league ballparks have luxury suites!) As is common in these suites, there were as many people inside watching TV as there were outside watching the game. Since the Olympics were on, I suppose that was more understandable than usual.

The baseball game ended about 9:30. (Frisco beat the Northwest Arkansas Naturals 3-2, if you are keeping score.) Remarkably, nobody left. If you looked out the window at the other suites, nobody left them either.

You see, Michael Phelps was going to swim at 9:55. He and his relay partners were going for a gold - his eighth of these Olympics.

As you know by now, he won it. He holds the record for most golds in a single Olympics and most golds all time. More than Mark Spitz. More than Carl Lewis. More than Michael Johnson or Jesse Owens or Nadia or anybody else.

He is an American hero. And a bunch of often-cynical adults refused to go home from a minor league ballgame until they could watch him win a swim race. We all cheered and stood for the final leg and held our breath and yelled as Jason Lezak touched the wall first. We were like little kids.

Phelps, if you believe the puff pieces on NBC between events, was picked on as a kid because of his unusual physical appearance and his ADHD. He is the child of a broken home who is double-jointed. He is 6'5" and eats 8000 calories for breakfast and cannot crack 200 pounds.

And he overcomes. He practices. He makes the most of his talent and his opportunities.

And a bunch of lawyers waited around in a minor league ballpark and cheered like ten-year-olds for a swimmer. Amazing.

I saw another hero this weekend. (Warning, if you have not yet seen "The Dark Knight" and don't want to have the ending spoiled for you, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. I will put a line in in capital letters to let you know where you can jump back in.) I went to the movies.

When I was five years old, I watched the old campy "Batman" TV show religiously, every afternoon at 3:30, right after "The Munsters." I thought Batman was THE hero, because he did not have those dumb super powers like Superman or Aquaman or Wonder Woman and yet he still won all the fights. Biff! Pow! Zowie!

I would get my mom to safety pin a towel around my neck, and I would put on some goofy sunglasses, and I would BE Batman in the back yard.

In the new movie, Batman's biggest heroic act is not hitting anybody (Thwack!) or running real fast or catching the bad guy. His biggest heroic act occurs at the conclusion of the movie. Gotham's DA, Harvey Dent, is a public hero, but he turns out to be a bad guy in the end, having killed several police officers after suffering his own personal tragedy. He tries to kill Batman but instead is killed himself. After Dent's death, Commissioner Gordon laments the fact that Gotham's hopes will be shattered when they learn what Dent has done, but Batman will not let that happen - he tells Gordon that he, Batman, can never be the true hero Gotham needs. Gotham needs "a hero with a face." He persuades Gordon to tell the city that it was Batman, not Dent, who committed the murders, so that the police will chase Batman and let Dent's reputation survive unscathed. Gordon remarks that Batman is "the hero we have, but not the hero we need." Batman accepts responsibility for Dent's actions.

In other words, he takes the sins of the enemy on himself. Paul might say that He, who was rich, became poor for the sake of another. C.S. Lewis would call it Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time.

For all that Michael Phelps has accomplished, he is no Batman. He does not - for indeed he cannot - take on the sins of another.

OK, NO MORE MOVIE SPOILERS. YOU CAN START READING HERE AGAIN.

We need more heroes. We have needed Michael Phelps these days, like we have needed Nastia and Shawn and Kobe and Misty and Kat and so many others. We need to see those who take what they are given and make the most of it and overcome. We need to see what can be done. We need to see hope fulfilled.

But more than that, we need Batman. No, we don't need someone who dresses up and captures the Joker. We need that one who understands sacrifice, who puts the needs of others over the needs of self.

Batman is, of course, fiction. There is only one hero like that. And we all need Him.

I am glad that He is both kinds of hero - He is hope fulfilled and He is sacrifice. He overcomes, and He takes on our failings because we need Him.

It is trite to say that He deserves a gold medal or an academy award or the cheers of a bunch of adults in a luxury suite.

He simply deserves the best we have. He is a hero.

He is the hero we need. Fortunately, He is also the hero we have.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Vacation Thoughts

Just back from the mountains. I am not ready for a full-fleged blog yet, but some thoughts are running around in my head that I want to share while they are fresh:

-- If you have not read any of Jan Karon's "Mitford" books, I recommend that you give them a shot. Thoroughly G-rated, they are simple stories about simple people in a simple place. Don't pick them up if you are looking for a potboiler, a war story, a murder mystery, or suspense in the typical sense of that word. But they are real stories about could-be-real people going through real events, and as the series progresses, the theology and the worship contained in the books are, at least for me, refreshing and worthwhile. For years, I have told my Sunday School classes that when I meet a Christian whom I had not previously known, the Holy Spirit in me reaches out to the Holy Spirit in that person. That is how I feel when I read Karon - I have never met her, but I know her soul.

-- Like the beach, the mountains are a view I need periodically to rest my restless spirit. I live in the flattest part of the country, and seeing the Smokies reminds me of God in a way I need periodically. It is not that I have forgotten Him, but I need to see mountains in the same way I need to recite the Lord's Prayer and sing "It Is Well" and read the 23rd Psalm. I know they are there, and I can close my eyes and picture them, but climbing up in them and experiencing them again is necessary for my spiritual well-being.

-- Watching my kids makes me know how much I missed in not having siblings of my own. I am not complaining, for my life was and is good, but I am so grateful that they have each other.

-- There is a profound freedom in visiting a strange church for worship. I mean "strange" only in the sense of "full of strangers," for the church I visited was very much home - I knew the hymns, heard conversations very much like many I have had myself, and knew the stories of many of the people although I could not match which story went with which person. Again, the Holy Spirit in me found Himself replicated in good folks around me whose names I will never know. But worshiping where literally nobody else in the room knows my name removes some natural distractions and allows God to speak in ways that I often do not otherwise hear.

-- It is good to be home. I think the best vacations are those that we are thrilled to take and happy to return from. My kids are glad to be home. So am I. I won't mind going back to work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To My Friend

We are so worried about you. I know that worry is a waste of time, but there seems to be little else for us to do. We cannot help you when you don't want to be helped. We can pray, and we are doing that. We can try to form a plan to help, and we are doing that. And we worry.

You are so beautiful. You have always been the one who was open and transparent and steady, always there for the rest of us. You are the one who in so many ways has changed the least - your laugh is the same, your outlook on so many parts of life is the same. You are so smart, so talented, so able. You understand me. You understand all of us. You understand so many things in this world that baffle so many others. I wish you could understand yourself and what is happening to you.

They call this thing a disease. I have no reason to dispute that - it is way outside my expertise. But to me, it looks like you are fighting demons: demons who are coming at your weak point, demons who know your Achilles heel. You don't know how to fight these demons, or you have given up fighting them, or they have convinced you that you don't want to fight them.

I don't understand your fight, because your demons are not my demons. I have mine, of course; we all do. But your demons are not the kind that tempt me, so I don't understand your fight. But I understand that you are fighting, that you were fighting, that you need to fight.

Oh friend, hear me across the miles. I want you to know that I am desperately hurting for you, as if knowing that would somehow give you the strength to fight harder. Know that there are so many of us who do not want you to give up, who understand that one thing that you don't - you. We know how much the world needs you and what a void there would be without you.

I am told that tonight is a crucial night for you, and I am hundreds of miles away. And so I pray, and I talk to others of our friends who are far away, and I type this letter that you may never see. You won't talk to any of us now, won't return calls, won't even send a text message or an email.

Those of you who do see this letter, please pray for my friend. And please don't stop fighting your own demons, whatever they are.

My friend, I look forward to seeing you again, for you are so important to my world. Don't forget who you are, and whose you are. Don't forget all the people who love you, and all the people whom you love - children, parents, sister, brothers, friends. Fight on.

We have a mutual friend who has fought the same demons you are fighting now. He wrote these words: "There's a light at the end of the darkness, and it shines for all the world to see. It will shine in your life, if you will let it. I was blind when it finally shined on me. There is hope in that light for the hopeless and a soothing balm for pain and misery. It's as near as your faith though sometimes seems fleeting. I was blind when it finally shined on me. I was looking up through the bottom when it finally shined on me."

Look up. Let it shine. Fight on.

I love you.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Last Lecture and Millennium Goals

I just finished Randy Pausch's inspiring little book called The Last Lecture. Pausch is a university professor dying of pancreatic cancer who writes the book, which grew out of his farewell address to his students, as a memoir/treasure chest to his kids. I highly recommend it.

I find myself focusing on a couple of interesting nuggets from the book. He quotes his first football coach for the line "you've got to get the fundamentals down, otherwise the fancy stuff won't work." Late in the book, he notes the futility of "treating the symptoms instead of the disease." For the latter, he uses a great illustration of a friend who is barely unable to make ends meet. She is so stressed out about finances that she spends her Tuesday nights going to a yoga class (which of course costs money). With his help, she figures out that she can stop paying for yoga and instead take a temporary part-time job on Tuesday nights, and she will eliminate the financial problem and thus the stress.

The UN has some so-called Millennium Development Goals that many churches are adopting as their own. They deal with worthy things like fighting malaria and educating children and empowering the downtrodden. I am in favor of all of them -- in fact I serve on the Board of Directors of a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting with sustainable development in a third world country. The Development Goals are of course examples of the kinds of things Christ calls us to do. But...

On June 28 (three blogs ago), I wrote about fundamentals and how some of us may be avoiding them. I am pulled back to that topic today after reading the book and then hearing this morning's sermon. You see, I think that the Millennium Goals are what the football coach would call "the fancy stuff". They are worthy, but they only work if we have the basics down. If we are not grounded in the love of Christ and motivated by having been saved from our own multiple errors and vices, we will not last long trying to generate the energy and the emotion and the perseverance it takes to minister with any real meaning. You can't be the hands of Christ if you don't know Christ. That is why the world has forever cried out "Peace, Peace", but there is no peace.

Reaching out to the poverty-stricken and educating children, without introducing them to Jesus, are just fancy ways of treating symptoms.

The disease is not poverty or ignorance or discrimination. The disease is not even AIDS. The disease is the lack of a relationship with God, a relationship made possible through Christ. That is the fundamental.

I suspect most fundamentalists are against churches' adopting the Millennium Goals because these Goals are not pure evangelism, and for most fundamentalists I know, it is folly to state any goal other than evangelism. (It is ok, apparently, for fundamentalists to have other goals - ranging from electing favored candidates to shunning undesireable folks from the church - just so long as they don't publicly admit that these are goals.) And therein lies one of my primary departures from the Christian fundamentalists - evangelism is an important thing that Jesus taught us, but it is not the only thing. It is not the Great Commandment.

Again, I am all for the Millennium Goals, just so long as they do not become THE goals of Christianity. Ministry to the poor is an important thing Jesus taught us, but it is not the only thing. It is not the Great Commission.

When a church or a convention seems - and I believe it is simply how it seems, not how it is - to generate more excitement for the Millennium Goals than for spreading the gospel, we are treating the symptoms. We are trying the fancy stuff without getting the fundamentals down.

There is no doubt that Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick, but I believe He did those things as a part of a larger, more directed aim-driven ministry. He was all about the Kingdom. That was the fundamental. He was treating the disease.

My college debate coach had a five-point mantra that he would recite to me before every round. "Be clear. Sound like you're winning. Keep your options open. Tie things up in the last rebuttal. And don't put the round on a trick!" That last point was telling me not to try to win a round with the fancy stuff. We won or lost with the fundamentals.

So too, the world will be won or lost with the fundamentals, no matter how non-progressive it sounds. The social gospel is marvelous right up until it supercedes the gospel. Never let the good get in the way of the best. Adopt the Millennium Goals and minister to the needy, but do so in the context of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Fight the disease.

And by all means, read The Last Lecture.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Slogans for Life Learned at the Water Park

Spent a great day with my daughters today at NRH2O (for you non-Fort Worthers, this is our local water park, sort of a AAA version of Hurricane Harbor). There's a lot to learn on a day like today.

1. "JUST ADD WATER" -- It is amazing how a little water - and a few kids - can make anything fun. Things broke down, it was about 110 degrees, there were skads of people... it did not matter. People had fun, got along, enjoyed themselves. And that includes people of all ages, races, classes, and languages. I recognize that North Richland Hills is not Memphis, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, or East LA, but I got a glimpse today of the fact that racial disharmony is not inevitable. There were no such dividing lines today among people enjoying the water together.

2. "TATTOOS - NOT JUST FOR SAILORS, BIKERS, AND ANGELINA JOLIE ANYMORE!" -- I saw more body art today than I had on every other day of my life put together. This fad, like the tat itself, is here to stay.

3. "NOT EVERYONE SHOULD WEAR A BIKINI" -- Some slogans need no elaboration.

4. "CHURCH IS LIKE A WAVE POOL" -- I was struck by the lifeguards. I am sure there is a "right" way to do a wave pool. I am sure that the lifeguards have been trained to teach the swimmers exactly where to be, how to use the floats, the best way to catch the waves, and many more things that will never occur to me. But in practice, what the lifeguards do is make sure nobody drowns. Sure, they would love to see perfect swimming and the best possible enjoyment of the wave pool, but after I observed the lifeguards for several hours today, I think they go home and know it is a job well done if they have made sure that everyone has survived and had a reasonably good time. It struck me that the many people in the pool are sort of like my church. My object lesson is that maybe we should not expect our ministers - who admittedly have been educated in theology and trained in all sorts of "proper" and "best" ways to do church - to lead us to perfection in worship, ministry, and interpersonal relationship. They really are focused on making sure that nobody drowns, and if they get through another week without losing anyone, that is a job well done. Anything else is gravy.

Like all parables, this one cannot be stretched too far, or it will fail - of course church is more important than a trip to the wave pool, and of course we are not there just for enjoyment and exercise, and of course we are trying to serve. I am not forgetting any of that, and I am not trying to stretch my illustration to cover that. I am just noting that maybe we are too hard on our leaders sometime, and maybe we don't even conceive of what their primary job is.

5. "SPEND MORE TIME WITH YOUR KIDS" -- Again, no elaboration is needed, but a day with your daughters at the water park is one to remember. I recommend it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Four Ladies

A single year saw the passing of four women who, at different times in my life and for different reasons, had great influence on me. You have known ladies like them who served the same purposes in your life. Remember the ones who affected you as I remember these four who touched me. I did not call any of them by their first names, but I will use their first names here as I introduce them to you.

Frances was a part of my life when I was a very young child. After her death, I discovered that she called my mother her “best friend.” I never knew that when she was alive. I simply knew her as the slightly unusual lady at the church who wore wigs and sold cosmetics out of her house. I remember her as funny and optimistic and always cheerful. I remember the pleasure she brought to my family.

Jenny was the mother of two of my very good friends in high school. After her death, I learned of numerous projects and groups and influences she had that made up the bulk of her life. I never knew about those things when she was alive. I knew her as Jody and Kevin’s mom – the strong, welcoming, faithful one whose house was always filled with our friends. She talked to me as though I were an adult. She raised incredible kids. Her marriage was a model.

Anne was my favorite college professor. After her death, I learned of many, many dozens, if not hundreds of others who also counted her as “favorite”. I might have known that if I had thought about it during her life, but I did not. I knew her as the brilliant mind and quick wit who gave me myriad insights into literature. I remember my first day in her class, when she called the roll and required us to respond by quoting a line from American literature. We could not cite an author whom someone else had referenced; I listened anxiously as Twain and Frost and Hemingway were quickly quoted by those lucky enough to have a name beginning with a letter early in the alphabet. Thankfully, Emily Dickinson was still available when my name was called (the only other American author still available I could think of as my backup was Dr. Seuss!), and I responded “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Anne liked that.

Della came into my life as an elderly widow. After her death, I learned of her life as the wife of a minister in another state. I had never known about that. She decided, for reasons surpassing understanding, that my clan was her “favorite family”. I sat and marveled as I listened to her, as an eighty-something year-old, sing recitals with a voice of someone a third of her age. We had the opportunity to take her to dinner mere weeks before she passed, and her joy, even as her body was deteriorating, was contagious.

Four ladies. None of them will ever be in a history book, appear on a stamp, or serve as the subject for a movie of the week. All of them were precious and vital and unique. Each of them touched my life in ways they probably never really understood or appreciated. They have all left this world for what is beyond, but their influences and their memories will never leave.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Fear of "Fundamentalist-ism"

In my corner of the world, being called a "fundamentalist" is a bad thing. Most of my friends are, by any reasonable world-view, very conservative Christians. (My college pastor, certainly no fundamentalist politically, used to say that his personal theology was so conservative that he squeaked when he walked.) But within our Baptist wing of the world, most of my friends are on the "moderate to liberal" side of things.

That surprises my non-Baptist friends. They cannot see how any of us can be anything other than a reactionary conservative. After all, we believe the Bible is true, we try to do what it says, and we believe that Jesus was really God and really man.

In the last few weeks, I have heard two of my good friends reminisce with regret about how they remember themselves when we were in the same youth group in the late 70s and early 80s. They both apologetically described themselves as "teenaged fundamentalists" or "former fundamentalists" or something like that. I think what happens is that now, knowing what they know as forty-somethings and looking back on what they knew and believed then, they cringe. We all do that, of course - we all cringe when we think what we were like when we were 17.

I think, in fairness though, it is one thing to hold those views when you are 17 and still learning about the world and scriptures. That is not fundamentalism in the sense we mean it now. That is learning the fundamentals.

And that brings me to my point. I fear that, in desperately avoiding the tag of "fundamentalist," we are avoiding the fundamentals. The problem with fundamentalists is not that they hold basic "fundamental" beliefs about scripture and Christ and salvation - the problem is that they never grow from a basis of those beliefs, choosing instead to formulate a rules-based world that holds only to the fundamentals. I think that we have to grow and learn the exceptions to the rules and explore the gray areas, but in doing that, we must not decide that the fundamentals are no longer important.

There is no doubt that the extremism of fundamentalist thought is dangerous. We get pharisaical rules, authority centered in the loudest and best-dressed preachers, and intolerance of differing views. In my particular denomination, we have seen good people's faith challenged as false because they decline to use certain political buzzwords to describe their position. We have seen the focus on the basic need of salvation and call to evangelism eclipse virtually every other command on us as Christians, from discipleship to social ministry. We have seen the privilege and right to question interpretation and authority virtually eliminated. We have seen, paradoxically, many of the fundamental tenets of what it means to be a Baptist abandoned as creedalism and even Calvinism creep in, displacing local church autonomy, soul competency, and the priesthood of believers.

But we cannot, I believe, decide not to teach the fundamentals just because we don't want to be labeled a "fundamentalist". Focusing exclusively on discipleship or social ministry is just as bad as the Fundamentalists' approach. The church that chooses not to focus on redemption is missing the greatest, most "fundamental" if you will, aspect of grace. The congregation that does not spend time confessing sin and understanding that the wages of sin is death soon forgets the need for the cross. And that congregation, of course, may well not want to discuss the cross, since all that talk of "blood" and "sacrifice" sounds oh-so-fundamentalist. It does not seem progressive to discuss miracles and sanctification and resurrection.

And looking back on ourselves at 17, when we were first really understanding the truth of scripture and trying hard to apply it to our lives, we can make our immature teenaged selves easy targets. We can look back and conclude that we were judgmental, when in fact we were really just serious about doing what the Bible said, and we had not yet learned how to smooth out the rough edges. We can look at our 17-year-old concerns for those around us who needed the Lord and decide that we were finger-pointers; in truth, we were loving Christians who were trying, in the best way we knew how, to "go into all the world".

Did we mess up? Were we childish? Did we think we knew everything? Did we have a lot of maturing to do? Was our faith made up of little more than the basic fundamentals and a few rules?

Of course.

But were we "fundamentalists" in the sense of that term today? I don't think so.

And if, in our "moderate" Baptist churches, we spend a service talking about the spilled blood of Christ, are we suddenly channeling Jerry Falwell? If we actually call a sin a sin and call Christians to responsibility for their actions, are we in danger of succumbing to the dreaded "right wing conspiracy"? If we use words like "redemption" and if we teach that Jesus really rose from the dead and that Jonah might actually (but maybe not) have been swallowed by a big fish, have we become that from which we are striving so hard to stay separate?

I don't think so.

I think that there is a ditch on both sides of the road, and in avoiding the dreaded extemism of one edge, we can teeter dangerously close to the other.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The End is Really the Beginning

I have been a part of the audience for a variety of milestones over the past ten days.

I went to Sam's funeral. I knew Sam a little bit for a long time. I never knew him well, but as is often the case with parents of good friends, he appeared at various times in my life. I did not really know much about him.

I love Christian funerals. I know that sounds morbid to many and downright weird to many others, but, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, if we Christians cannot celebrate at a funeral of a brother or a sister, then we are above all people to be pitied. At Sam's funeral, I saw his faith displayed in a dozen ways, and I heard my story in his story. I mourn with his daughter Sheree - it is not fair for her to lose both her parents in less than three months - and I weep with Mark and the girls. But I left there reaffirmed once again that the end is really the beginning.

I got Amy's graduation invitation in the mail. She graduated the day after Sam's funeral. Couldn't make it to Cincinnati, but I have been to enough such ceremonies to know what I would have experienced. It was the end of Amy's college career, but of course it is really the beginning.

The next day was the last Sunday at our church for my pastor, Brett. He is leaving to start a new career. The church will find a new leader.

The same day, my youngest daughter Annessa was baptized. Though she has been a Christian for some time, her baptism came on Sunday. It is a symbol of many things, but I am old-fashioned enough that the symbolism for me is the King James Version - We are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in the newness of life. The end is the beginning.

Both my daughters, Carolyn and Annessa, have had birthdays this week. One year ends, another begins.

There is nothing revolutionary in my seeing rebirth and new opportunities in the passing of milestones. I know I am not breaking any new ground in this blog.

Still, it is worth pausing to notice that life is not linear. Neither is it circular, for we can never go back to get a "do over" on the same path. I think that life is a spiral, much like a giant slinky. We go forward, we come back, we bounce around, and we start on a new path. Always upward, if round-about.

Sam's path has started the greatest turn he will take, hard as it may be for Mark and Sheree to see right now. Amy knows she is on a new path. Brett takes a deep breath and spirals on. Annessa and Carolyn really have no idea about this journey they are on, but they both know that Annessa's milestone under the waters last Sunday was an important marker.

When you get to be forty-something like me and go to the same job every day for years, it is tempting to forget to look for milestones. Maybe the lesson for me is that I am not on a treadmill or in a grind - I am on His path and following His lead. Maybe other people's milestones are really His signals to me - He is still creating and recreating and leading. I am not that much different from Amy and Carolyn and Annessa - I am His child.

So is Sam, coming home to his father's house. I celebrate that.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Campus wanderings

I was in Waco on Tuesday. I was about an hour early to teach my class at the Law School, and I found myself tracing old steps. I have been on campus many, many times since graduating over 20 years ago, but for some reason, Tuesday found me back in two buildings that I have not visited in decades.

First, I went to the Tidwell Bible Building, home of the religion department (which you could guess from the name) and the history department, one of my majors. I entered through Miller Chapel, and the first thing that struck me was the smell. It is not a bad smell, just a distinct one. There is nothing else on earth that smells like Miller Chapel at Baylor University. My college choir met in that room every week for years. I first flirted with Gena in that room. I think the last time I was in there was for Chris and Diane's wedding.

I left the chapel and wandered the halls on about five floors of the building. I had many, many classes there. I looked for names of professors I knew, and I found a few. I wish Dr. Beck had been in her office - I would have loved to say hi and complain about my Old Testament grade!

When I finally left Tidwell, I walked to what is now called Morrison Hall. Back in the day, it was Morrison Constitution Hall, and it housed the law school. With the advent of the new Law School building, Morrison underwent a much-needed renovation. After they cleaned out the asbestos and ran the last of the well-educated roaches out, they let the University Scholars and the Philosophy Department move in. No matter - I still heard the echoes of Professors Muldrow and Trail as I walked. I still felt the strange mixture of fear and awe that those halls always produced.

Then, strangely, I had to cut the nostalgia short so that I could go take my turn as a teacher. Yeah, they call even me "Professor" these days.

I wonder if, in a couple of decades, some lawyer will return to the then-aging Umphrey Law Center Building and hear echoes of a trial advocacy class taught by some adjunct ... what was his name? Rob-something?

I don't wish to go back to that age, and I am grateful for the many steps taken since then. Still, it was a good 45 minutes remembering smells and fears.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Man in the Balcony

When Megan began to play the offertory at the end of the worship service yesterday, you could palpably sense the appreciation and the admiration in the room. I can only speak for myself, but I was surprised at her sensitivity, her musicality, her confidence as a high school junior interpreting the Grieg Nocturne for her congregation. And then, almost imperceptibly, I caught myself looking up to the corner of the balcony, where Van Cliburn was sitting, watching her play and listening intently. (If you don't know who Van Cliburn is, this blog won't make much sense to you, so you should Google him before you read any more.) I wondered if Megan knew that Van Cliburn was present and listening. And I wondered if that made her play better.

I was not alone. In the choir robing room after the service, I heard a number of people wonder out loud some version of "I wonder if she knew Van Cliburn was there today".

Is there a spiritual application here? Do we live our lives, play our songs, make our contributions to worship with the knowledge that Jesus is present and watching and listening? Does it make a difference? Do we live, play, contribute better because He is present; or, are we intimidated, thinking that there is no way to measure up?

And I wonder if we treat him as though he were simply a man in the balcony.

Julie Gold's song "From a Distance", first recorded by Nancy Griffith and then made a huge hit by Bette Midler, has never been a favorite of mine. It is a beautiful and haunting melody, but the punch line is that "God is watching us from a distance." Sort of like the man in the balcony. I don't believe that. I believe that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, and I don't believe He is an inactive watcher. I believe He empowers and helps.

You see, no matter how much Mr. Cliburn concentrated and sent "good vibes" Megan's way yesterday, she was on her own. Even her teacher, who was also in the congregation, could do nothing yesterday to help out. Megan simply had to play. If knowing that the great Van Cliburn was in the balcony, watching and listening "from a distance" inspired her, it was she who drew that inspiration and translated it into a beautiful moment at the piano.

I hope I don't live as if Jesus were in the balcony, performing for Him and hoping that He approves. I hope that I don't contribute to worship as though God were an appreciative audience rather than a participative helper. I hope I don't spend all my life singing to God instead of sharing with Him.

Of course God is the object of our worship - I don't mean to imply otherwise. But He is more than that. He is more than an observer, even a keenly interested, really talented one. In a way that Megan could never be "the hands of Van Cliburn", we are the body of Christ. It is not just a metaphor; it does not simply say that we represent Christ. Being the body of Christ means that He works through us, He speaks through us, He lives through us. That is supernatural, and it is not very logical, but it is real.

Grieg would have been proud of how his music was played yesterday. I think Van Cliburn was pleased at the technique he saw and heard. And I think the analogy ends there.

Jesus is not the man in the balcony, listening to how we play His music and studying our technique. No, He is the one whose hands we use, whose mind we have, whose spirit is our very being.

So play.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Reflections on a Reunion

Even the name sounds odd, maybe even a little corny: “Church youth group reunion”. Who has ever heard of that before? Our youth minister from 1979-1982, Jim Gallery, had never heard of it. None of us on the planning committee had ever heard of it. Perhaps other groups have had them; surely they have.

But it sounds like a stretch. High school reunions are expected. College reunions are commonplace. But youth group reunions?

I don’t know what I expected. Six years ago, about half of a small group of us who had taken a mission trip to Colorado in 1982 gathered for a twenty-year reunion. With spouses, that was about 12 people. It was fun. We looked at some slides and reminisced. It was a couple of hours, and it was done. We left with talk of maybe doing “a big reunion” with “the whole youth group” some day.

So when Jody suggested that it was time for the “big reunion”, I knew what she was talking about. I just did not know what to expect. I put expectations on hold as I shifted into organization mode – that is, after all, my forte. I suggested assignments for the committee – Jody would handle planning the worship service; Hallie would be in charge of pictures (name tags, slide shows, displays, whatever); Chris (who has the world’s largest collection of music) would put together our sound tracks with music from the era, and because he knows Dr. Roebuck, the current pastor of our youth group’s old church, Chris would be our liaison with the church; Kristen and Karen would be in charge of local arrangements in Nashville. Me? I would be the communications guy – I would compile the invitation list, contact the old youth group and youth workers, collect the money, and emcee the program. Right down my alley.

It is easy for me to organize. Typing emails and making lists and coming up with assignments. Keeps my mind off of thinking about what is coming.

Oh, I guess I had some ideas – we would see old friends, and we would see people that maybe we did not think of as friends. We would hug and watch slides and swap stories. Maybe Jim would give a devotional talk and remind us why we respected him so much twenty-something years ago.

Fast forward to now, almost a week after the reunion. I had no idea what was coming. Organization can only take you so far.

Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville was quite the happening place for a teenager in the late 70s: mission trips to Chicago; summer youth directors; youth choir singing “Celebrate Life”; church services on TV every week with a pastor who knew the youth group members by name and who spoke a language we understood, even as he made news in town and stood tall for his beliefs. The summer after sixth grade was the longest summer for most of us, because we saw the youth’s activities, and we were not yet a part of the group, not until Labor Day when school would start and we would be in junior high and officially – at least in the Baptist world – be “youth”.

In 1978, the Woodmont youth world changed, and for the better. First, Woodmont called a new minister of music, Joe Morrell, who was young and funny and knew how to do youth choir – musicals and trips and electric gathering music and how to organize setting up the sound system and the risers and the puppet stage all in thirteen minutes. Joe led what ended up as our last mission trip to Chicago, and I knew I was in for a ride.

At Christmas break of 8th grade, at our mid-winter youth retreat, we met for the first time Jim Gallery. Woodmont had decided to call its first full-time minister of youth (and singles, for a while), and Jim was the guy. Joe knew him from somewhere, and it quickly became obvious that the two of them were cut from the same cloth – they were very different, but as a team they could lead us to do remarkable things.

And I think we did remarkable things, for a while. 1979 in Dauphin Island, Alabama. 1980 in Skidway Lake, Michigan. 1981 in Oscoda, Michigan. 1982 in Crested Butte, Colorado. We led Bible Schools and Backyard Bible Clubs. We worked, a little, in places that needed painting done and lunches packed and surveys taken. We did “street ministry” – can you imagine today sending groups of two or three teens out into the street, unscripted, to talk to strangers about Jesus? But we did it. And of course, we sang. Songs that we still remember, even if we don’t think we remember. Melodies that ranged from country to gospel to maybe even a little bit of rock-n-roll (at least as much as we could get away with back in the day), all accompanied on those trips by canned tracks blaring from those speakers that we could set up in thirteen minutes.

And we played. We played games. We played pranks. We played instruments. We laughed and we cried and gathered for “share time” every night.

We all remember different things from share time. What I remember are two things: listening to people work through early, immature experiences with the Holy Spirit by talking out loud and being affirmed by others who were having the same embryonic steps of discipleship; and hearing Mark West remind us that the “mountaintop” feeling we were having would go away, but we could still… when we got home … we could still serve Christ and love each other and grow as Christians.

Our youth group experience was not only mission trips, of course. I would not even say that the mission trips were the best of our experiences. At the time, we thought they were; but in retrospect, I would say that the mission trips served more as bookmarks of our time together, mileposts in our development.

We had the weekly schedule – looking back it is tempting to call it a “grind”, but we did not think of that way (although I am sure our parents were tempted to!) – of twenty-to-thirty minute drive to church, Sunday School, worship, twenty-to-thirty minute drive home, home for about 3 hours, twenty-to-thirty minute drive back, youth choir, dinner, training union or discipleship training or church training or whatever the Board-approved name for it was at the moment, then worship again. Many Sunday nights, we added yet another hour to the schedule with a fellowship, and after all that, we still found time to go to Shoney’s or just go out to the top of the big steps at the Belle Meade Boulevard end of Warner Park at the top of the hill, where we could look at the lights and talk and, yes, sing still some more. Then twenty to thirty minutes to drive home.

There were retreats and summers full of special events and Thursday night Happenings, lock-ins, visits to Point Mallard and the Wave Pool, work at the Children’s Home, and still more Sunday School-worship-choir-dinner-training-worship-fellowship Sundays.

How could we not have grown to know each other intimately through all of that? How could we not have forged relationships that now, almost thirty years later, are picked up like precious jewels and treasured all the more?

There was, of course, more to it than schedules and friendships. There was Jesus. Many of us had been baptized as children, and I am sure that we were Christians before Jim and Joe came into our lives, but we had very little clue what that meant beyond the fact that we were going to heaven. But in those youth group years, we studied and we learned and we questioned. We struggled, no doubt. Some of us knew the Bible verses better than others did, and some of us could win the Junior High Sunday School contests because we were quick on the trigger on these little electric mock-ups we used for our games, but we all struggled. Still, Jesus found His way into our lives. Jim modeled Him. Joe proclaimed Him as he taught us how to proclaim Him. Volunteer leaders demonstrated Christ’s love to us. We knew there was something real there. We may have been clueless about the deepest meaning of “Come to me all who labor, and are heavy-laden down, and I’ll give you rest”, but we knew that Jesus was real and good and present and loving, and we knew that we wanted to do what He called us to do. For many of us, that meant walking an aisle and surrendering to “full-time Christian service”, and we thought that required seminary and vocational Christian careers. For some of us, that call did require just that; for others of us, our careers are “secular”, but our “full-time Christian service” continues.

I am not quite as Pollyanna as I sound. I know that there were many of us who did not mature in our faiths very much during those years. I know that there were many of us who did some very non-Christian – or at least non-church – kinds of things during those years. We certainly do them now. We were teenagers in the 70s and 80s, and the world around us touched and polluted us like it did everybody else. But we, as a group, were trying to be different. This reunion proves it.

So, wow, that is a very long introduction to reflections on this reunion, where more than fifty "alumni youth" and a dozen or so former youth workers gathered. But in fact it is not just intro, because a big part of my “reflecting” on this reunion is my reflecting on those days.

Here is what I take away from the reunion:

1. I was thrilled with literally every conversation I had with everybody who came back. People who were not my “close friends” in 1981 are, today, just as worthy of my attention as those whom I counted as my closest friends. Maybe the exclusion was my fault – maybe I just assumed certain people did not care for me, or maybe (if I really admit it), I was pretty elitist as a big-shot youth. If I overlooked you or was rude to you and you are reading this, I apologize to you. Every person at the reunion was warm and just as happy as I was to be there. As I renewed friendships and talked with Jeff and Carmen and Linda and Alyson and Donna and Jimmy and countless others, I was awed by the power of relationships forged almost thirty years ago. We walked a special road together, and we are bound.

2. Despite our youth group and our spirituality and our strong church and our best-laid plans, our group of people has been hit by the world like everybody else has. Obvious wounds like the loss of parents, the loss of a child, the loss of a spouse, the inability to walk, divorce, bankruptcy, and addictions were present. Less obvious but just as wounding were the scars of defeat, betrayal, personal failure, family illness, weakness, disappointment, sin. In Kevin’s marvelous words, we are all cracked vases with new vocabularies.

3. I missed people. I wished that Karen and Becky and Bill and Jud and Patti and Leanne and Emily and Amy and Terri and Scott and Anne and Lillian and a couple of dozen others could have come. Please don’t be offended if I left your name out. I missed Tim and Len and Barry and Crystal and Lisa and Robin and another Karen and another Karen and Mike and Calvin and Laura and countless others. I just can’t list all the names. But I missed you.

4. I missed other people too. Jenny Roberts. Jack Welch, Sr. Mr. and Mrs. Reasons. Howard Stevens. The memories are flooding back now.

5. Like everyone else there, I was swept up in the flow of the weekend, which, however accidentally it was organized, ended up taking us perfectly from the casual picnic where we stood around and talked through the dinner and program of Saturday night to a worship service where we were primed for God to move. And move He did. Bryan, your words (“God sent me healing for a wound I did not even know I had”) were outdone only by your countenance. Joe, you picked choruses that we had sung and felt, and you took us back to another time. Carmen, I cannot begin to say what I felt because I cannot articulate it – you are simply amazing, and God is not finished with you. Jim, your calm and your words were balm for the soul, as always.

6. And Kevin… is it presumptuous to say that I am proud of you? I know that in all practical terms we are in the same age group, but I can’t help it if I still see you as Jody’s little brother. Your words were so well chosen, but it was your demeanor, your readiness to stand up and speak for us as well as speak to us that made me proud. You stepped up and were our pastor.

And there is one thing more.

In the aftermath of the weekend, as Kristen and I debriefed on what had happened, she articulated what I had been struggling to find words to say. In Kristen’s words, the weekend confirmed for us that what we all remember from youth group days was “real.” I think what Kristen means is that, now, nearly thirty years later, it can be so easy for us to chalk our youth group experiences up to the frenzy of hormones and performance and life discoveries. And, of course, we were caught up in hormones and the joy of performance and the discovery of what life has to offer during those years of adolescence and budding adulthood. But that is not all. We found something more, something real. We cared for each other in ways beyond what most people – teenaged or otherwise – ever find. We experienced things that most people miss. We gave. We forgave. We helped. We joined together. We loved.

And we worshiped. Oh, how we worshiped! On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights in the big room with the tile missing in the ceiling… in the choir room, as we learned the songs that remain within us still… in tents in Michigan and on beaches in Alabama and on mountainsides in Colorado… in dormitories and fellowship halls and campgrounds and crammed hotel rooms during share times when, as Kevin says, time stood still… on retreats. We met Jesus and we exalted God and we felt the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And we still do. It is real. Our relationships are real. He is real. Some of us have walked a long way since our last real experience with God; others of us rely on a daily relationship with Him. Either way, we re-anchor ourselves when we are certain of the reality of what we experienced then. And last weekend reminded us that we are, in fact, yes indeed, certain.

So that is where I leave it. A simple reunion of fifty or so middle-aged folks who once walked a sacred road together as children-becoming-adults. A dozen or so older adults who shepherded our walk and who came to a reunion to see what we have become and maybe to be reminded themselves of a distant reality. Parents who came to a worship service and found more than they expected.

Maybe not so simple. But real.

To each of you who came, and to those who were not able to come, I love you. May the road rise to meet you. May the wind blow at your back. May the sun shine warmly on your face. May the rains fall softly on your fields. And, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New Blogger

OK, I have lots of friends who blog. I even read some of the blogs. So maybe I will occasionally come and blog. I expect my thoughts will tend to the spiritual/mystical musing side, but I occasionally may delve into the law, into politics, maybe into music, most definitely into the state of the church.

For now, I am coming off of a great weekend. I am full, having been spiritually fed and having renewed many great relationships. Too, I am moved by the suffering I see in lives around me, suffering that I have been spared. I worry about a friend or two who may be in trouble - then again, there may be no trouble at all.

I guess a blog, like a journal or a life, is what we make of it. It will be fun to see what happens.