Monday, May 25, 2009

"Angels & Demons" Part Two - Rewriting History

Dan Brown, the author of Angels & Demons and of The DaVinci Code, takes great liberties with historical fact. Actually, that is putting it nicely - the truth is that he has created his own history in huge sections of both books.

Because Brown claims a great deal of "historical fact" as the bases for these novels - and because his history is so spectacularly wrong - there are many who are deeply offended by his work. Some believe that he is attempting to perpetrate some sort of hoax on his readers. Others worry that readers and moviegoers will be led down a primrose path of inaccuracy, never to be cured from their newly minted historical ignorance.

History is treated at least six different ways in the movies. (1) There is, of course, the non-fiction movie, usually seen as a biography or a documentary. Movies such as "All the President's Men" and "March of the Penguins" generally fall into this category. Dramatic license may be taken with a date or an identity (or with the length of time it takes a penguin to walk across a continent) here and there, but the movie does not pretend to be more than a retelling of an interesting real event. (2) On the other end of the spectrum is utter fantasy. Nobody would ever search for historical landmarks is "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter." (3) A third treatment is to ignore history, to tell a story that has no reason to relate to any real life historical event and thus can exist outside of real history. For example, "The Shawshank Redemption" or "The Philadelphia Story" or "The Firm" or "Holes" may be historically dated because of the style of clothing or the make of cars in the background, but the plot and the characters could exist any time. There are no historical references made, and thus there is no reason to worry about accuracy. The fourth is much like the third. It is (4) a story that exists independently of history, but there is an occasional reference to real historical events, like a war or a president or the depression. Next, there is (5) the historical fiction, where a make-believe story is inserted into historical events. Think "Gone With the Wind" or "Tora Tora Tora." These movies are generally gentle with their history, taking widely known events like Sherman's march to the sea or the attack of Pearl Harbor as no more than a backdrop for a love story or a drama about the relationships among soldiers.

And then there is the last treatment, (6) the rewrite. "Angels & Demons" and "The DaVinci Code" certainly fall here, as would diverse movies from "National Treasure" to "JFK" to many traditional westerns. I would also include most courtroom dramas in this category. To me, these fictional tales are harmless. Of course Galileo was not a member of a secret "Illuminati" society, and in fact there was no "Illuminati" society in Galileo's time. Of course Leonardo was not hiding clues about the Holy Grail in his artwork, and of course Mary Magdalene was not the Holy Grail. Of course the Crusades were not in the same century as Brown's characters claim. Of course there is no treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Of course the peace-pipe-and-tepees savages depicted in many spaghetti westerns are exaggerations fueled by early and mid-twentieth century revisionists and tale-tellers. And, of course, virtually nothing that happens in the courtrooms of "Law and Order" or "Perry Mason," much less "My Cousin Vinny," even remotely resembles the procedures and rulings of real courtrooms.

None of this bothers me. I assume that people go to fiction movies to see a story, and if a skillful storyteller puts Chicago in Iowa or has Henry Clay serving as president or has Ben Franklin as the inventor of the cotton gin, so what? Why is that any more harmful than saying that the greatest lawyer of all time was a man named Atticus? I doubt that the real Captain von Trapp watched a puppet show in his house or grabbed a guitar for the first time in a decade and immediately sang "Edelweiss" to his children flawlessly, but so what?

Some people answer "so what" by arguing that many readers and moviegoers do not know their history and thus will be deceived. After all, many people are certain that there had to have been a "magic bullet" involved in the shot that killed President Kennedy, and many are certain that objecting to a question because the other lawyer accuses a witness of lying is perfectly acceptable. I can see this point of view - better not to expose the ignorant to something wrong than to risk their falling for it.

But I disagree. I believe in the marketplace of ideas. I embrace the notion that the solution to misinformation is not to censor it but to counter it. Fight ignorance with truth, not with restriction. If Oliver Stone and Dan Brown have figured out a way to make money, more power to them - it does not seem illegal or unethical to me. If "Valkyrie" raised questions, maybe somebody followed up and learned something. Good for them.

To be clear, I would rather that Brown get his facts right. I think that accuracy is better than just making it up as you go along. When Tom Hanks' character is dropping little tidbits along the way, why not make it right? But my point is that it is the fiction author's prerogative to create the world of the story, and if Dan Brown wants to make one pope responsible for changing all of the sculptures in the Vatican in a fit of prudishness, that does not strike me as a crisis. It does strike me as something that makes the book and the movie not nearly as good as they could have been, but choice is tragic, and if the author makes that choice, then we readers and consumers can make our choices as well. Gene Callahan, in a much better blog than this one which can be found here, describes this treatment of history by Brown's ilk as "theatre of the absurd." It is not my favorite kind of writing, but I don't think it is worth getting upset about.

In the religious world, we deal with Dan Brown-like authors and tale-tellers constantly. The misinformation about Jesus, the early church, and Christianity itself is everywhere - and much of it is unintentional. The world is also full of wrong information about Islam, Mormonism, and Freemasons. Is the answer to make people stop talking about it?

I hope not.

I hope the answer is to use the momentum created by a movie like "Angels & Demons" to encourage research and inquiry and thought.

The answer to misinformation is more information, not less. Truth is a powerful tool.

"Angels & Demons" Part One - Science and Faith

Interesting movie. I never read the book - reading The DaVinci Code was enough for me. But the movie is entertaining. Implausible, silly, bubblegum fiction - yes, yes, and yes. But entertaining nonetheless. No spoliers here - I won't give away the ending.

There are two relatively important (at least to me) discussion points that arise out of the movie. In this blog, I want to deal with the first: What is the relationship between science and faith? In my next blog, I will address the second: What should we make of movies (and novels) that massacre historical fact in the telling?

I get Jim Denison's daily blog, and he is dealing with the first subject this week. I will try not to hijack his thoughts.

To cut to the chase, I don't get the supposed conflict. Oh, I understand that those who believe that the Bible is a literal science textbook are left in a quandary to explain any number of things, but since I believe the Bible is the biography of God and tells the (true) story of God's interaction with (certain) people and God's message for (all) people, the supposed science/religion dichotomy fails to ring true.

This movie uses the claim that Christianity is anti-science as a jumping off place. In fact, I believe that Christianity is and should be, in part, a celebration of science. To me, each new scientific discovery is a revelation of something else that God is doing and has done. To be elementary, the understanding of photosynthesis does not not eliminate the role of the divine. My fourth grader can tell you about the water cycle - that does not diminish her understanding that God sends the rain.

The typical battlefield - evolution - is particularly unsatisfactory as a declaration that science and religion are at war. Taking atheistic evolutionary theory at its extreme, one still has to find a starting place, an initial cell, a big bang. The spontaneous advent of life is no harder to believe - no more an act of faith - than is the existence outside of time of the eternal Creator. We can disagree about what a "day" is. We can debate about "how" God created. But to conclude that the evolutionary evidence means that the religious understanding of God is somehow "wrong" is a jump that simply need not be made.

The attack on technology from religious grounds is understandable when seen through the eyes of the victims of technology's misuse. But the same logic would say that human speech should not be used and promoted, since the tongue can be a vicious and wounding weapon. Is it not more persuasive to understand advances in technology as human exercises of the brains God has given, as potentially, if not always actually, victorious steps to conquer hurdles that God wants us to leap?

When we learned that the earth is not the center of the universe, Christianity did not fall under its own weight. What fell was the orthodoxy of the day.

And there, maybe, is the answer. The fight is not between science and faith but rather between science and "religion." If our religion depends more on manmade rules and assumptions to create standards than on Godmade revelations and declarations, it stands to reason that God will undercut that religion with yet more declarations and revelations. If those revelations are found by unbelieving scientists, anthropologists, and historians, does that mean that it is not God doing the speaking?

I believe that science - like the tongue, like our emotions, like our desires - must be harnessed. If it is not, it can be used for the most unChristian of expressions - just as can our tongues, our emotions, and our desires.

But for the church to run from science in the name of doctrinal purity is to decide that we know all there is to know. It is the height of arrogance... It is our Babel.

And for science to declare that it has shown up Christianity, has unmasked the truly religious thought, has exposed the fallacies of the church - this is just as arrogant. Pick your scientific theory, rule, or hypothesis and follow it backwards with "why" questions, and you will eventually get to "I don't know." Anybody who has raised a three-year-old can tell you that.

And if we do not know, if we cannot know, then we are left with only one thing. We call that faith.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Principles and Expediency

It is easy to stand for principles when you are not the one involved.

It is ...
... easy to be for war when you are not draftable.
... easy to be for a process that is producing the outcomes you want.
... easy to condemn homosexuals when you don't know any.
... easy to demonize flag burners when nobody is telling you to take down your signs.
... easy to be for academic freedom as long as the professors don't deign to teach something you don't like.
... easy to be for variety until the show includes a song you despise.

And, I would add, it is easy to be for "principles" and to denounce those who make choices based on "expediency" until your principle does not produce the consequence you intend.

I am speaking to my fellow conservatives here (using the term "conservative" in the broad sense of political philosophy, not in the sense of identifying anyone as a listener to certain radio stations). If you are for freedom, you are for freedom, even when it is abused. If you are for love and grace, you are for love and grace even when extended to those you don't like. If you are for proper process, then you are for proper process even when the result is one that you would not have chosen. If you are for principle, then you are for principle even when expediency would lead you to a different result.

The same admonitions could go to our liberal friends. After all, it is easy to attack the hard choices of government when the other side is in control. It is easy to accept all sorts of behavior in the name of tolerance when your child is not the one being victimized. It is easy to be open-minded until you have to welcome and include the views of straight-laced conservatives as quickly as you include everybody else's.

It is easy to do what is easy. It is expedient to scream to get the short-term result you want. It is a convenience to keep what you know is right private.

Know what you believe. Understand that what you believe does not always produce perfection in this fallen world. Don't decide to change your principles when the immediate result is not to your liking.

I know that Ralph Waldo Emerson said that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but writing essays and leading the Transcendentalist movement didn't make him a philosophical master. I'll stick with Polonius' advice: "To thine own self be true."

Or, better even than Shakespeare, I like this quote, from Martin Niemoller, a friend of one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in fact, the quote is often attributed to Bonhoeffer): “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”

When it comes to principle, let's all show a little foolish consistency.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Am an Alien

This world is not my home. I'm just passing through.

We are strangers. We are aliens. We are not of this world.


These lyrics from two very different songs mirror a repeated theme of scripture: The Apostle Peter refers to us believers as "aliens and strangers in the world." Moses referred to himself as a "stranger in a strange land," and he was not just talking geography. The writer of Hebrews tells of heroes of the faith who died as "aliens and strangers on earth."

It becomes clearer and clearer to me that I am not of this world. Some of you reading this have known what a misfit I am a lot longer than I have - you have been trying to tell me for years. You have known that I will never fit in.

Some of it is a matter of pop culture. For example, (at the risk of sounding like my parents...) I cannot go to a movie or read a novel that does not simply assume that unmarried couples who have gone on at least a second date are sleeping together. The assumption that sexual activity will actually wait until marriage is not even seriously considered in prime time. Today's culture is full of these things that are simply outside my understanding of what ought to be - the language that is used, the assumptions about how people treat one another, behaviors, values, the place of the spiritual in the life of human beings... The list goes on and on.

But it is more than pop culture. It is real life. My contemporaries live in a different world from mine. They focus on this world that really holds very little for me. Values, character assessments, priorities, and goals are set based on items of such little concern to me. And in turn what is most important to me befuddles those around me. They sort of chuckle at my life as they try to hide their wonder and disdain.

(I do not mean to imply that I do not understand these differences, nor do I fault the culture for reflecting the hearts of those who create it. As I have written before, it seems backwards to me for us to expect non-believers to act like believers. Why anyone expects people to repent of behaviors that those people do not believe are wrong is beyond me. My point is not that I want the whole world to start acting like I think it should - my point is that I am becoming more and more cognizant of just how out of step I am.)

I of course have to live and function amidst all of this. I do not mean to pretend that I am not caught up in a lot of these very same earthly priorities at any given moment. But I can at the same time say that I am not comfortable there, and I do not pretend that these momentary distractions are anything but just that - distractions.

It can be uncomfortable to be an alien - after all, people treat you funny. I can look around for signs of home and not always find them. The music that lands best on my ear is often nothing more than a far-off hint of a tune, almost (but not quite) simply a memory.

Ironically, we have the church itself to blame for increasing our alienation. Infightings and insensitivities to the world around us have combined with a failed mission to lead to suspicion and outright disregard of our words, our values. For us to talk about "seeking a deeper personal relationship with Christ" smacks of "conservative blather" to some and is simply label-spouting to others. Frankly, many even in the church don't know what we are talking about - asking those who do not believe to understand may be beyond the pale.

Thankfully, of course, I am not alone on my alien pilgrimage through this world any more than I am alone in the church. Of course there are many believers walking with me, helping me along, leading me in the right paths.

And of course, we can affect the culture one heart at a time. That is our mission. We can and do change this world, little by little. But I do not think we will ever really be anything but strangers here. There is a reason that Isaiah writes about the holy mountain of the Lord, why John writes about the city for which we are looking.

In some ways, it is quite comforting to recognize anew that I don't belong here. It makes it easier to take the fact that there are any number of earthly goals that I cannot achieve for whatever reason. It softens the blow of simply not feeling accepted, not being comfortable, not fitting in. I am not meant to fit in. All things have become new - I am a new creature.

It is easier to keep my eye on the ball when I remember that I am playing a different game from those around me. As the fortune cookie says, those who dance are thought crazy by those who cannot hear the music.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Epidemic

I found out about another one today. And it makes me angry.

Another friend of mine called today to tell me about her impending divorce. 16 years of marriage, two kids, nice house, good careers, church membership - and now a broken home.

This comes less than a month after another marriage between good friends who are my age has dissolved. I was in that wedding.

Perhaps it is a fad of this generation. Maybe it was a fad of our parents' generation, and since so many born in the 60s had such a poor role model of marriage, it is that much easier for us post-boomers to hang it up when it comes to marriage. Maybe it is just that as my friends and I enter middle age, we are all hitting the time when marriages find the most stress. Maybe it is that our more permissive society is just making divorce that much easier.

As I think of the seven or eight close friends of mine who are divorced or are divorcing, I know that the problems are myriad. For every case of sexual infidelity - and there certainly are those - there are just as many cases of one spouse or the other simply giving up on the marriage, of "wanting out." Too often, the marriage has dissolved because all semblance of trust has vanished. Of course, I do not know all of the reasons for any of these breakups.

Some of these friends are very conservative. Some of them are liberal. Most of them are in a church, but some are not. Some are ending a second marriage. None of them is a bad person. None of these marriages is ending because of rampant abuse, addiction, or criminal behavior.

I am not throwing stones. There but for the grace of God and my incredibly patient wife go I. No marriage is easy.

I watched Elizabeth Edwards interviewed on The Today Show this morning. She sat patiently as Matt Lauer incredulously asked how she could possibly stay married to John Edwards, a man who had an affair while running for president. Her answer was that "for better of for worse" meant something to her when she said it, and while this was much worse than she could have imagined, her husband was her husband.

I remember the quiet admiration I felt for Hillary Clinton during her husband's well-publicized dalliances as she fended off the cries for her to leave him. Yes, I know that some of you cynics assign all sorts of political machinations to her staying married, but somewhere in me is the understanding that she felt a need - moral, spiritual, personal - to stick with her marriage.

My admiration for Edwards and Clinton, for two wronged spouses who are sticking it out, does not mean that I fault my friends who are not sticking it out. I mention them only because they are noticeably unusual in today's world.

I understand that unfaithfulness by one spouse can justify drastic actions by the other; and I believe that we have a better and more expansive understanding of what constitutes marital unfaithfulness than did those a couple of generations before. There are more options now, particularly for women, and unfaithful spouses are not able to get away with all they once did.

The world - and the church - are more tolerant of divorce now, and I am not always sure that is a good thing. Of course it is good to forgive people, but I wonder if some are a little less hesitant about making that move because they know that they will be more quickly accepted.

Fortunately, I have more examples of lasting marriages around me than I do of failing ones. My own parents approach their 48th anniversary this year. Gena and I have many, many friends who are making marriage work. Sacrifice, hard work, forgiveness, commitment, and a lot of love go into it.

I don't know the answers. All I know is that marriages all around me are breaking up, and it makes me sad, and it makes me mad - not at my friends, but at this epidemic that is infecting so many lives. I wish it were not so. I don't have a sermon, a prescription, a cure-all, or a lecture to give. Only a lament.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What is This Thing Called Unity?

I was once asked to speak to a church prayer breakfast group on “the unity of the body”. I joked at the time that the host did not tell me if I was supposed to be for it or against it. Nobody laughed.

Being for unity in a church meeting is kind of like being a politician who campaigns against crime. Along with preaching against a lottery and quoting John 3:16, we can be popular by speaking in favor of unity.

It is not just a church thing. It is an American thing. President Lincoln was, after all, quoting Jesus when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Why is unity so important?

The Psalmist tells us: “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!” The prophet, looking towards the holy mountain of the Lord, writes that “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Jesus Himself prayed: "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in Me and I am in You.”

Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there will be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” The early church was described this way: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Finally, Paul writes that: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Central to the faith of the Old Testament Israelites was the Shema, the truth: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.” Because God is one, one set of laws applied to both Israelites and foreigners. We see the ideal marriage expressed as “one flesh.” The selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira, those who would separate Gentiles from the Jews, the prejudice against Greek widows, the insidiousness of the Judaizers – all these things threatened the unity of the New Testament church and are roundly condemned in scripture. The shared experience of Christ as Lord reflected in the singleness of baptism and the joint sharing of the Lord’s Supper, our shared sense of mission, the shared suffering, and the love we share for each other are all bolstered by and reflected in our unity.

We sang in the seventies that we are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

That is the easy part. Like all the politicians who are against crime, we are all with Jesus and Abe Lincoln when we call for unity.

I don’t think that is the message that a lot of church members need to hear. Try raising controversial issues in many churches these days, and the answers you will probably get will be striking in their uniformity: “The church cannot face that, it might divide us;” or “The unity of the church is too important for us to tackle that.” I don’t think a pep rally for unity is what most of our churches need.

Of course, I am for unity of the local church and of the universal church. I am for unity because our Lord was for it and because Paul preached it and because it is the only way for the church to survive. Of course, I am for unity; the question is how do we get there and how will we know Biblical unity if we have it? So, at the risk of stepping on toes, which I am undoubtedly about to do, I want to bring a caution: I do not believe unity ought to be the primary goal of a healthy church; but, I do believe that Biblical unity will be the necessary byproduct of our discipleship if our primary goals are right. The road to unity is doubtless paved with godly intentions, but what do we mean by unity? How do we define it so we know we have it?

Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law' – 'a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'“ And yet, this same Jesus prayed that we be one, as He and the Father are one. What, then, is Jesus’ unity?

1. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when it requires uniformity.

To use an extreme example, the most unified group of human beings I can think of in modern history exists today in another part of the world. We call them Al Qaeda. They have one goal, one expression of that goal, and only one purpose. Individual differences are irrelevant if they are tolerated at all; individual goals appear to be immaterial.

I know that is extreme, and I am not accusing anybody in the church of terrorism. My intent is to use the ridiculous to make a point – we revel in our individuality. In the church, we call that giftedness. Paul talks about the body of Christ, and in the unity of that body, we all have different roles, different looks, even different smells. Somebody has to be the foot, while somebody else is the lung. You may be a tonsil and I may be a kneecap, but we function in our differences to become one body. You know the passage: “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don't need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don't need you!’”

Indeed, later in the same Ephesians passage I quoted earlier, Paul makes this point clear: “It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

2. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when nobody asks questions.

Unity, as I believe Jesus meant it, as I believe the early church practiced it, as I believe Paul preached it, and certainly as the historical protestant church fathers envisioned it, welcomes questions. Yes, I know I am from a profession that exists in an adversarial system where questioning is the stock and trade. Yes, I spent four years in high school and four years in college debating competitively. Yes, I am a trained questioner. No, I am not unfairly bringing a bias to this topic.

Do you ever see Jesus rejecting questions from among His apostles? He even embraced questions from the Pharisees, but that is a different topic for another blog. Among His closest followers, the same audience who heard Him pray for God to bring unity, Jesus listened to questions about withering fig trees and who would be first in the kingdom. He opened the floor Himself with questions like “Who do men say that I am?”.

I find it interesting, and frankly a little disconcerting, that a large church can deal with major issues in silence. No, I do not want a shouting match. Yes, I trust church committees and staffs. But does nobody have questions? Have we developed a culture where the road to unity makes the questioner shy away? I wonder.

Even more than questioning though, the proof is in the pudding. I believe that unity is not Jesus’ unity when nobody ever disagrees.

Maybe you are responding to yourself, “Lyn, of course we can ask questions at our church.” But I wonder about the ability to disagree freely. When a large church of apparent spiritual maturity chooses not even to consider legitimate issues because church unity may be at stake, we need to reexamine what kind of unity we have.

President John F. Kennedy said, “The unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion. “

A strong unified church can handle disagreement. Please hear me – I am not in favor of strife, discord, or anger. Nor am I promoting debate for debate’s sake in the church. But somehow, we are in danger of developing a culture that says, in the name of unity, I cannot voice my disagreement. I cannot stand up and say “I disagree.”

The dangers here are manifold. On a theological level, this is the issue that has driven a dagger into the heart of some of Christendom’s previously most admired branches and denominations. Today, many groups find themselves led by those who have stood up and declared that members must toe the line or leave the building – you must agree or you are not welcome, you do not qualify, you are not right. Ironically, in the name of unity, those who will not suffer disagreement have caused the greatest disunity the church universal, at least in America, has ever seen.

Another danger is the possibility of continuing in our wrongness without testing it. I don’t know who is right or who is wrong on all of these issues, but as long as we continue to do it as we have always done it and refuse to question and allow disagreement, we will never know if we are right or wrong. All we will know is that we are firm in our stance.

After all, there is very little difference between a path and a rut.

The biggest danger is missing a work of God. I know that God on occasion may and does move entire congregations simultaneously to the same point; but, you see, I think at least as often, God starts a movement with a few people – maybe it is an Amos, maybe it is a Martin Luther, maybe it is a Roger Williams, maybe it is a few churchmen and women who are willing to stand up and say, “This is not what we should be doing anymore, not what we should be preaching, not how we should be ministering… I disagree with the church.” When that disagreement is allowed, the voice of God may be heard.

There is another danger. Maybe most of the time, those who disagree with our tradition and our majority are wrong, but when they are not free to question or to disagree, they will leave. They do not like or do not understand what we are doing or why we are doing it, but when public disagreement is frowned upon in the name of unity, their options are to suffer in silence or to go somewhere else. Or worse, to go nowhere at all. In the name of unity, we in the church can mirror the doctrinaire leadership that characterizes many denominations today as we unwittingly drive wedges.

I know there is a ditch on both sides of the road. If you hear what I am saying as an invitation to anarchy or as an excuse to stand up in business meeting and complain when the church administrator has decided to buy a new Xerox machine, then you are putting words in my mouth that are not mine. The freedom to disagree, like all Christian freedoms, carries with it the responsibility to do so in Christian love and with a conscious mindfulness of the feelings of others, of the work of the church staff and committees, and yes, of church unity.

I do not have an agenda for any specific program. I am here to say that we should be open to the new voice, to the disagreeing opinion, without feeling threatened as a unified body. If that voice is wrong, the wisdom of the church under the leadership of the Holy Spirit will prevail. I have witnessed dozens of church meetings – business meetings and town hall meetings and deacons meetings – where there was honest, and even heated disagreement in the spirit of love and peace, and where the body spoke. After the issue is decided, the united church acts.

3. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when the focus is wrong.

Let me begin this section with a quotation:

…[T]he unity of our people and the unity of our various nationalities - these are the basic guarantees of the sure triumph of our cause.

That quote could be heard from some pulpits I know, but it is originally from an interesting pamphlet entitled On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People by Mao Tse Tung. Again, while the church is no closer to espousing Communism than it is to channeling Al Qaeda, we have to realize that there can be unity around the wrong thing as easily as there can be unity around the right thing.

I am using the word “focus” here not in the vision sense but in the mathematical sense. The focus of a parabola is the unmoving central point around which the curve is gathered and drawn. An ellipse’s shape and size are determined by two fixed points called foci.

When the church’s focus is Jesus Christ, then unity is right. When the focus is anything else, and I mean anything else, then the road to unity is wrong.

What do I mean? What other things can distract us? Well, they can certainly be bad things. If the Tower of Babel story teaches us anything, it teaches us that people who call themselves God’s people but who focus on something other than God’s plan – here it was their own desire to join together in unity to put themselves on the same plane as God – can have that unity destroyed when God intervenes. The Pharisees were united in what they would have said was doing what God wants. The Inquisition, though carried out by government, was born of a unified effort of a church.

But the other things that can catch the focus of a church are probably not in that league. Instead, these all fall into the category of the good getting in the way of the best. Carefully, let me give some examples. Churches can focus on worship style, church growth, koinonia, meeting the needs of church members, providing cultural relevance, raising money, or even on unity. Yes, I am saying that unity should not be a primary goal of the church. Unity is the natural result when the primary goal, the focus of the church, is Jesus Christ, His mission, His blood, His righteousness, His love, His face. Our church should be built on one thing, the Great Confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. When we all revolve around that point, we cannot help but to be in unity.

4. Unity is not Jesus’ unity when it becomes a fortress.

Of all the dangers inherent in giving lip service to unity, the spectre of “fortress church” may be the hardest to prevent for the unwary. We find ourselves building a church on a Benjamin Franklin theology: “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we will all hang separately.” In the course of striving for unity, we can become completely focused on ourselves. In the name of unity, we get together for fellowship and men’s prayer breakfast.

There is nothing wrong with that. We form motorcycle clubs and have departmental fellowships. Nothing wrong with those either.

Except…

Then, we decide it is time for ministry, and our first thought becomes ourselves. Let’s find some senior adults in the church who need help with chores. Let’s all get together and repaint the nursery. Let’s look around and see what members of our church need our help.

Please understand... I am against none of these things. I think we must help our seniors and our needy. When the nursery needs repainting, by all means let’s go do it.

What I am criticizing is a church mentality that looks first to ourselves.

The church is the body of Christ, and whatever else Christ was and is about, it was and is not primarily about meeting His body’s own needs. If, in the name of unity, our ministry program becomes day care, aerobics, divorce recovery, caregiver assistance, youth choir, marriage counseling, job placement, Christmas crafts, racquetball, senior adult cafeteria clubs, and yes, men’s prayer breakfast, we run the risk that a dying world outside our walls goes right on dying.

I have probably offended most of you with something in the last paragraph, and I have not meant to do so. I think that every ministry opportunity that we see should be followed, assuming it has a viable place in the Lord’s work and if we feel led by the Holy Spirit to follow it. My point is that the church bent on unity can become a fortress, taking care of its own, protecting itself from danger and division, and blind to the world around it.

Jesus calls us to something much greater than a church striving to preserve itself. He calls us to be His eyes, seeing needs in the dark places. He calls us to be His ears, hearing the cries of the hungry and of the misguided. He calls us to be His feet, going out of our fortress to the needy. He calls us to look not inward but outward, not towards meeting our needs but toward sacrifice of our needs so that others may be touched. He calls us to walk where He walks, among the harlots and the lepers and the Pharisees and the crosses.

But here is the kicker – I am indeed in favor of church unity. The church that does not require uniformity but instead celebrates its internal differences and utilizes its many gifts will be unified. The church where questions and yes, disagreement, can be voiced openly and received lovingly will be stronger as a single unit. The church focused on Jesus Christ cannot help but be unified. The church that is not a fortress but a ministering body that touches its community will be the paragon of unity.

I believe strongly that the church is Biblical when it is in one accord. But I do not believe that the early church fathers got up every day agreeing with each other about every issue any more than they got up and were uniform in their choice of breakfast. If you read the scripture, you find not that the church made unity its goal but instead that the members were in one accord because they were continually praising God, continually in prayer, continually working for the purpose of the Holy Spirit. They did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Church unity is critical. But it is a byproduct of our discipleship, of our commitment to the work of Christ, of our focus on our Savior.

“So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus….” “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another.”

Richard Baxter, a seventeenth century Puritan, said it this way: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

May God bless us and give us unity as we follow Him in one accord.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Callings

It is a question that comes to all of us early on: What do we want to be when we grow up?

The wording of the question changes, but the essence of it does not. We may ask, "What is my destiny?" We may say, "What lies ahead?" We may put spiritual words around it and ask, "What is God's will for my life?"

We are familiar with the word vocation, which after all comes from the Latin for "calling". We know the idea that we will hear a voice, feel a nudge, sense a leading, feel a push. We gravitate toward one thing or another.

I grew up hearing that God's call for my life was specific and that it was embedded in every significant decision I would make - where I would go to school, what would be my major, where I would live, if and whom I would marry, and most certainly what would be my career. The unspoken implication was that missing God's call on any of these issues would lead to disaster... or at least to dissatisfaction (both mine and God's).

The problem, of course, became finding that call. Since God was not sending me any catalogs, sensing His call became an art form. We had youth group meetings and Bible studies dedicated to deciphering His call. Outside of the church, school friends and I would spend hours debating choices that lay ahead, desperate not to make a mistake.

Now, at this point in my walk, I am a little more relaxed about calling. Make no mistake - I believe that God calls us, and I believe that - at times - that call is very specific. But I believe that the very specific calls are few and far between, and I believe they are different for each of us.

I believe, for example, that God's call can lead us into a specific vocation, career, or job. But I also believe that it does not have to. I have a good friend - a devoted Christian teacher and deacon - who runs a business selling plastic. I have heard him say on more than one occasion that God never called him to sell plastic, at least not per se; instead, he believes wholeheartedly that God called him to be a part of the business world, to interact with the people he meets there, and to hold a job that puts food on his family's table and allows him the time and flexibility to do the myriad other kingdom jobs to which he is called for which he receives no paycheck. He might have the exact same call if he were selling brooms or insurance.

I am not convinced that God called me to be a lawyer nearly as much as I am convinced that my calling involves using the gifts I have to help people while at the same time being available to write, to speak, to teach, to lead retreats and services and studies, and to serve my church. I DO believe that God chose to give me a set of abilities and desires that make the law a vivid calling for me, and I am quite sure that in following that calling I am in the middle of His will. But, had I used those talents in a different career - so long as I fulfilled the more specific callings He has placed on my life - I believe that I would have been in the center of His will there, too. And within the law - whether I am in a law firm or in a company, whether in Nashville or in Fort Worth or somewhere else - I am not at all sure that it is critical to God where I specifically carry out that calling.

Now, understand, I am quite sure that God calls many people to specific careers in specific places. I believe that if God wants you doing your job particularly in Bowling Green, you won't be fully happy doing it in Wichita. My point is only that I don't believe He calls everyone with that specificity in every facet of their lives. Some people can serve equally faithfully in Bowling Green or Wichita.

So back to the question of how to find the calling. One of my Dad's favorite sayings is that "we approach what we do not know in light of what we do know." That is true in geometry, and it is true in life.

If you are not getting a clear word on God's call on your life, perhaps you should step back and see what you do know God is calling you to do.

We know ... that God calls us to love one another. We know... that God calls us to obey the Ten Commandments. We know... that God calls us to follow Him. We know... that God calls us to relationship with Him. How are we doing with these calls? If we are not finding a career call or a geographic call or any other kind of call, perhaps we should be focusing on the calls we know we have. Perhaps God is not sharing a more specific call with us because we still have work to do on these calls.

I have made changes in my life - job changes, church changes, relationship changes - based on what I perceived to be God's call on my life at the moment. I don't know the alternative to that - making significant decisions based solely on leaning on our own understanding seems futile to me. But that does not mean that I believe that every decision I have made has been make-or-break in God's ultimate will for my life. I fully believe that God's will can be carried out whether I choose A or B on many decisions that face me. I believe that God is big enough to allow us to take different roads. Sometimes, when we ask which is the better road, we do not get a specific answer because our loving God is perfectly happy for us to take either road.

Some choices, of course, are outside of God's will. I don't just mean the obvious sins and crimes here - some otherwise fine choices are not open to some of us simply because they are not doors that God wants us to enter. I can't always figure out why, but that is ok - it is not mine to determine.

We church members can make the mistake of limiting the idea of calling to the "professional ministry." We can fall into the trap of deciding that if we are feeling a call from God, we must be headed to seminary. My own experience teaches me that nothing could be further from the truth. I strongly believe that most of God's calls are for those of us who labor not in the pulpit but in the fields, not in robes but in suits or jeans or uniforms. I do not in any way denigrate the call to "vocational ministry," but neither do I exalt that call as the only worthy call for the Christian.

Finally, I DO believe that God has specific calls for each of us. They are just not the same calls. For some of us, God's specific call has to do with where we put down our roots, for He has people there whom we must meet and to whom we must minister. For others of us, the call is unique to a specific job with a specific employer in a specific place, for He will take our labors and do divine things with them. For others, the call has to do with how we serve Him, and we can do that in any of a number of places.

The Apostle Paul got a specific call that guided his every step for the rest of his life. Abraham, on the other hand, got a very non-specific call: "Leave here and go to a place I will show you." Abraham was not even told where he was going, much less what he would do when he got there. For every Jonah who gets a specific call to Ninevah, there are lots of us who resemble Matthew ("leave your booth"), Andrew ("leave your nets"), Moses ("go talk to Pharoah, and I will tell you what to say when you get there"), Peter ("walk like you see Jesus walking"), Esther ("be in the right place for such a time as you are needed"), or the many disciples of Jesus who simply heard "follow me."

I think we should quit stressing over the minutiae of every choice that confronts us and instead trust that, if we are following Christ, we are going to be led to stay within His will. I think that we should pray and seek His call, but I think that we should understand that sometimes that call will not be nearly as specific as we might once have been led to believe. When it is specific, of course, we must follow it; when it is not, we should bloom where we are planted and follow Him.