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.