Because life is a series of edits

Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Having the Appearance of Godliness, But Denying Its Power

In Books, Calling, Church, Health, Seminary, Westminster, Writers on November 24, 2009 at 6:54 am

LeadersJourney “In his classic book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster reminds us that the spiritual disciplines are uniquely designed by God to allow us to receive his grace by allowing ‘us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us…We must always remember that the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where the change can occur.’”
The Leader’s Journey, p. 136

I’m trying to recall when in my life I’ve felt most spiritually disciplined. It hasn’t been often.
My first thought goes back to my sophomore year of college, when I embraced (via The Navigators) the concept of Scripture memory and the Quiet Time (or “Q.T.,” as we affectionately called it then). I would rise every morning at 6 a.m. (after a 9:30 p.m. bedtime – unheard of for dorm life), make my way down the hall to the student lounge (which was always empty that early in the morning), and read, pray, write, memorize, and review verses for an hour. Over the next couple of years of doing this, I read through the Bible a few times, memorized (and retained) 2-3 verses a week, and filled 6 journals with my thoughts. I learned and grew a lot those three years, which was good. I was hungry to do so.

My second memory consists of a collage of my first three summers at Eagle Lake – first as a counselor responsible for the physical and spiritual care of a tee-pee of seven teenage kids each week, then as one of four program directors responsible for the whole camp (about 2,000 souls each summer). The sense of responsibility I felt was enormous, and my prayer life reflected it through multiple prayer walks (often in the same day) around the lake, across camp, and on a particular flat rock in the path leading to the A-frame. I prayed a lot those first three summers – sometimes out of gratitude, but mostly out of desperation – as the challenges felt immense and my ability to meet them seemed so small. These were hugely developmental times in terms of spiritual growth and leadership, and much of this had to do with those times spent in prayer, voicing my dependence to God.

If spiritual hunger and voicing my dependence to God are criteria for engaging in the spiritual disciplines, one might think there would be plenty more examples of having done so in my life. After all, since my days in college and at camp, I’ve gotten married, had four children, bought three different houses, written a book, traveled and spoken many times, experienced significant ministry transition, graduated from seminary, and now teach 100 high schoolers a day in my New Testament and Biblical Ethics classes. It would seem I have/have had reasons to exercise my dependence on God through spiritual disciplines.

Unfortunately, I haven’t felt spiritually disciplined for a long time, for in addition to the spiritual disciplines producing fruit in me in the past, they have also made me more competent at handling life and ministry in the here and now. Maturity, of course, is by God’s design, but competence is not meant to be an end in itself but a means to the end of continuing spiritual transformation and formation. This is what Foster means when he writes, “the path does not produce the change; it only puts us in the place where the change can occur.” Thus, when I have been most desperate, it has been when I have been most spiritually disciplined – not because I had to be, but because I needed to be.

In considering all this (and I do often), I think of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:2-5:

“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

Sadly, I recognize myself too much in these verses – not in every way mentioned, but in more ways than I care to admit. The appearance of godliness – so often mistaken as competence – too easily hides my desperation for God. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency – values affirmed in our culture – too often numb my felt need to practice the spiritual disciplines as they numb my real need to experience God. Spiritual disciplines can help me realize what’s going on in my life, but only God has power to transform my heart.


City of God or Country of God?

In Books, Calling, Church, Nature, Places & Spaces, Seminary, Theologians, Thought, Writers on November 21, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Maybe I've read too many Wendell Berry books, but it's taken some time for me – a country boy – to come around to the thought of the city being a cherished part of the Christian mission. Indeed, I get the concept of the biblical narrative taking us from the Garden (Genesis) to the City (Revelation), and it does seem God spends an awful lot of time in the Scriptures interacting with ancient cities and their inhabitants, but it's only been since moving to a big city myself that my heart has warmed to the idea.

Growing up six miles outside a town of 1,200 (Griggsville, IL – "Purple Martin Capital of the Nation") two hours north of the STL, my big city experiences were few and far between. When I did visit St. Louis or Chicago (which my family rarely did), or even when I traveled overseas at the age of 16 to major cities like London, Paris, or Munich, I was rarely scared by them, but I was not all that enamored, either. While I enjoyed the idea of being there, the cities all felt too touristy to me (granted, a tourist), and I just couldn't figure out who or how one enjoyed living in a place so overrun by millions of non-residents.

This theme continued when I moved west. Colorado Springs – as beautiful as it can be – seemed to prostitute itself to the spring break and summer tourist crowds. Add to that feeling the fact that there's absolutely no good way to drive east-west in town (which was unfortunate, since that was how we had to go to get to our PCA church), and I began to lament our attempts at church community in the city. I couldn't figure out how church "happened" naturally and personally in a city of 350,000, let alone 3.5 million.

Then we moved to St. Louis – a classic example of an American city that has suffered from decades of racial tension, white flight to the suburbs, and inner-city poverty (both financial and human). As the middle-class moved out, so grew with them the megachurches. Harvie Conn, in his book The American City and the Evangelical Church, sums up well what seems to have gone on here and in other metropolitan areas like it:

"The community church has become a regional church. And in
becoming a regional church it becomes a megachurch…In this
decentralized world the church loses its grip on local geographical
neighborhood and is transformed into a megachurch, twenty-five minutes
by car. The size of the megachurch becomes limited only by the size of
its parking lot. And the lost community created by this change finds
its replacement in the small cell groups and house meetings also
characteristic of the successful megachurch." (p. 191)

(Random thought: Maybe this is why I really don't like small groups – it's an unconscious rebelling against megachurches everywhere. Actually, I love the Catholic "parish model" with churches
geographically placed throughout the city and members living within the
neighborhood attending; in fact, if it weren't for those pesky doctrinal issues – worship of Mary, sainthood, purgatory, etc. – I'd probably have become Catholic by now if for no other reason than I love the architecture. But I digress.)

After we moved to Maplewood (where we live half a house from the St. Louis city/county line), we knew we wanted to be part of as local a PCA congregation as we could. Thankfully, Crossroads Presbyterian was just a ten-minute walk around the corner and up the hill from the house we bought, and we're glad for the fact that in terms of both vision and facility, there are no plans nor means to grow the church beyond 300 members without planting another church (which we're actually doing now) first.

All that said, my heart for the city (Maplewood and/or St. Louis proper) is growing in addition to my heart for the country. Yes, I'm still waiting for the PCA to catch a vision for church planting in more rural areas, but I know it's tough financially and (honestly) culturally. But, while I still feel the need to be an advocate for rural ministry here in the city, I'm glad to feel an expanding love in this country boy's heart for the city as well.

So, with apologies to Augustine, is it the city of God or the country of God that matters?

My best answer: yes.

I Hear There’s an App for That

In Internet, Technology on November 19, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Iphone-appstore I've had an iTouch for a couple of years now, but I've not really spent a lot of time looking through the supposed 85,000 apps that Apple claims have been created for it. To date, I've downloaded a few games for my girls to play, an app called Check Please to calculate tips, the Zippo Lighter app should I happen to attend a concert that rocks, the Just Light app that projects a white screen to read by if it's dark (and I'm desperate), and the Facebook app.

I don't have a lot of time to come up with needs I have for apps (and any apps that might meet them), so I'm throwing it out here. For you iTouch users, what apps have you downloaded and use the most? My only criteria are that they're useful and free (yes, I know some of them are only a few bucks, but I'm cheap).

Move Over Mr. Moviefone

In Family, Marriage, Places & Spaces, Pop Culture on November 13, 2009 at 9:20 am

To fulfill Megan's last mission for Chevy this month, she had to put together her own one-minute commercial for the Traverse. I did my best Don Pardo/Mr. Moviefone mashup for the endeavor, and am now officially available for part-time voice-over work in the St. Louis area. Here's my resume:

Megan Dunham: Mommy Mission #4 from Megan Dunham on Vimeo.

First come, first served (I've got Pixar on the phone now).

Now Practicing in Maplewood

In Books, Family, Health, Seminary, Young Ones on November 10, 2009 at 6:06 pm

“Systems theory focuses on what man does
and not
on his verbal explanations about why he does it.”
Murray Bowen in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

I love Murray Bowen and systems theory. I remember first formally encountering Bowen’s work in my Marriage and Family class at Covenant and thinking, “Not only does this make complete sense in explaining the dynamics of human relationships, it also appeals to how systematic/systemic thinkers (like me) think.” From that point forward, I was hooked.

Having grown up on a farm, I was raised and led to believe that the world was basically secure rather than basically threatening, and that as long as I did my homework, finished my chores, and got to (and out of) bed at a decent hour, things would generally work out for the best. Mine was a fairly consistent existence with little drama involved.

As a result of my background, I sometimes struggle with others whose commotion tends to trump logic. In the past, I have resorted to more emotional outbursts myself in order to "out-emote the over-emotional," beating them at their own game, and (foolishly) trying to illustrate how ridiculous the drama can be. This, of course, is rarely effective (though somewhat disturbingly enjoyable), and I recognize that I assume this position when I fail to consider the systems (family, organizational, etc.) at play in the various situations.

Thankfully, after years of learning things the hard way, I'm finally on the brink of a major break-through by being able to give up my attempts to "out-emote the over-emotional"; indeed, my days of "trying to illustrate how ridiculous the drama can be" may be at an end.

What's my secret? I'm the father of four daughters. Here's my team of therapists:


It's good to be on the road to recovery…

(Photo by Kelly Park Photography)

Judged with Greater Strictness (gulp)

In Books, Calling, Education, Seminary on November 5, 2009 at 9:06 am

Leaders Journey “Rather than living a reflective life characterized by the classic spiritual disciplines, far too often we live a frantically busy life that occasionally has daily quiet time. As we try to get some control over all the things that pull at us, God is assigned to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘Sunday’ part of our lives, rather than permeating all that we do. Consider: Do you have a prayer life or a life of prayer? Occasions of fasting, or a lifestyle of fasting? Do you relegate Jesus to a quiet-time encounter early in the morning, or engage in a reflective lifestyle that seeks to know Jesus’ presence in every moment of the day?”
The Leader’s Journey, p. 11

One of the toughest challenges being a Bible teacher is this reminder from James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” If there’s a verse that keeps me up late at night, it is this one.

Or is it? Let’s be honest: when was the last time I was actually up late fretting in holy fear over this Scripture passage? Or any Scripture passage? Based on my sleep habits (usually to bed around 9:45 and out as soon as my head hits the pillow), one might justifiably suggest that I’m not too bothered by the possibility of any stricter judgment to come. In fact, as one of my fellow teachers once concluded when he heard when and how I fall asleep, “You must have a clear conscience.” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Maybe it’s due to the subject matter (New Testament and Biblical Ethics) or the fact that I’m incredibly (unfortunately) gifted in “do as I say, not as I do” theology, the longer I teach, the more dangerous I see myself becoming as a teacher. My fear stems not from being a “bad” teacher theologically, nor from aspiring to be a “good” (or even “great”) teacher of the Scriptures. My fear is fooling everyone (including myself) into thinking that everything I teach is indeed everything I practice – precisely, particularly, perfectly. In my vocation as a Bible teacher, I worry as much about hypocrisy as I do hermeneutics, lest what I have learned and now teach as “truth” be possibly negated by not living all or any of it.

This feeling of hypocrisy – so graciously allowed by God’s Spirit to check me in the here and now – would seem to be part of that stricter judgment I normally reserve for a future date. Yet God is never content to let my inconsistent behavior go unaddressed and only (finally) to be judged at some cosmic Bema Seat; he is always at work by his Spirit (in conjunction with my conscience) to judge me in the present, that I may be made aware of my sin and repent.

Herrington, Creech, and Taylor write in their book, The Leader’s Journey, that “We often believe that the great difficulty in life is knowing the right thing to do. Sometimes it is. At other times, however, the difficult thing is simply having the inner resources to do what we believe is right.” (p. 17) I fully resonate with their statement, as so often the question for me is not what I am reading in the Bible, but if I’m reading enough so that the Bible can read me? Can I really address the subject of Sabbath with my students when my Sabbath is as subject to preference and schedule as theirs is? How is it my place to challenge my students on prayer when prayer has so little place in my own life? Once again, hypocrisy trumps hermeneutics.

The authors quote Dallas Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, on “the futility of attempting to direct our lives by asking the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ when we are not practicing the spiritual disciplines that Jesus practiced regularly in his life. Attempting to ‘perform’ as Jesus did when we are under pressure to compromise only frustrates most of us.” (p. 23) Maybe the reason I so rarely ask the WWJD question is I so poorly practice the spiritual disciplines needed to discern any answer to it. Again, my conscience condemns me.

My only hope in all this is Jesus – the Great Teacher himself – who endured the strictest of judgments to be found righteous in what he taught and how he lived. Jesus did not practice “do as I say, not as I do” theology; no hypocrisy trumped his hermeneutics. It is this Teacher who calls and motivates me to teach, and it is this Teacher who must empower me if I am to do likewise.

Grandma and Grandpa

In Family, Places, Places & Spaces, Young Ones on November 4, 2009 at 10:25 am

My folks were down this past weekend and we took a short walk around Forest Park on Saturday as it was so nice out. Megan snapped this picture and it’s a nice one.

Welcome, Interns (Part 3)

In Church, Education, Seminary on November 3, 2009 at 5:44 am

(Part 3 of "Welcome, Interns" for my Ed. Leadership class. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.)

6) Greater influence requires greater awareness – of others and yourself. One of the most important things you will learn about during your time at First Presbyterian is the power of influence – yours upon others, others’ upon you, and everyone’s upon the system. Before you can own your influence, you have to grow in your awareness of it by paying more attention to others and their responses and reactions to you. This is not a call to an unhealthy preoccupation with yourself; however, having an idea of how your presence (or absence) shapes meetings, discussions, decisions, events, and evaluations can give you great insight into why and how God has gifted you the way he has (or perhaps hasn’t). Embracing this discovery process and owning the results of it are key to developing yourself as a person; helping others embrace and own these same things in their lives develops you as a leader.

7) You are not your gifts, and your gifts are for others. As tempting as it may be to view your internship as the vehicle through which to highlight your many ministry talents (sort of a “Denominational Idol,” if you will), now’s as good a time as any to develop a healthy theology of spiritual gifts and abilities. First and foremost in this endeavor should be the idea that you are not your gifts, with a prime corollary being that your gifts are for others – believers and skeptics alike. Few things are less attractive than a show-off in the Body of Christ, so don’t be that guy. Instead, ask God and your leadership for the opportunities that they think will best help you help First Presbyterian; then, after being faithful in those opportunities, ask them for their honest feedback, not taking personally their comments (good or bad), but seeking to listen for how God may have used your gifts in the lives of others. Remember: you are not your gifts, and your gifts are for others. This feedback and (hopefully) affirmation from the church – not just generic spiritual gift tests or surveys, though they’re helpful – is how you discover more of who God made you to be and why.

8) Inspiration matters, but so does your integrity in summoning it. Understand right now that there is no Intern-of-the-Year award at First Presbyterian; thus, there’s no need to be (or try to be) the most hip, charismatic, and brilliant intern the church has or will ever have. This may disappoint some of you who, by nature, are hip, charismatic, and brilliant and were hoping for your shot at the title, but for others of you who are less hip, charismatic, and brilliant, let this lack of award competition be permission to be who you are and inspire others accordingly. Don’t hear what I’m not saying: inspiration is, well, inspiring, and people at First Presbyterian probably don’t get enough of it, but the inspiration they’re looking for – indeed, the inspiration they need – is the Spirit’s inspiration in response to the Spirit’s inspired Word. This doesn’t mean you can’t play an inspired part – just make sure it’s a supporting role, one that doesn’t compromise your personality and character to play it.

9) Be an optimistic realist instead of a pessimistic idealist. It’s easy to be the guy in the corner who knows how church is supposed to be and relishes being the one who doubts it ever will be. His is a "no-lose" situation; that is, if something screws up, he’s right, but if something actually works, he’s merely surprised (rather than wrong), while everyone else is simply relieved that something went well. But “no-lose” does not equate to “win-win,” so this isn’t very helpful. What is helpful (and, I've learned, more accurate and biblical) is taking the perspective of an optimistic realist – that is, one who recognizes the bad that could happen, but prays with hope that good will overcome. That said, resist evaluating everything by the pessimistic idealist’s “It’s never what it could be” declaration of doom, and rather adopt the optimistic realist’s approach of “It is what it is, but I pray it can be better,” as it’s a much healthier perspective for you, those you lead, and those who lead and work with you.

10) Prayer is not hard; wanting to pray is what’s difficult. That’s because wanting to pray means being willing to recognize your needs before God. And, while not wanting to do this for the sake of your pride may seem selfish enough, let’s add to the dysfunction: perhaps you’d rather judge others for having needs, which makes you feel better about having (but not praying about) yours. It’s sick, isn’t it? Indeed it is – which is why you as an intern need to wrestle not with your guilt over your real prayerlessness, but with your pride over your pretend sinlessness. After all, what is prayer if it is not a measure of how sufficient you view yourself? If you really want to grow in prayer, ask God to show you how competent you aren’t during this internship. You may be surprised how much more you pray as a result.

So there you have it: ten thoughts to consider as you prepare for your internship at First Presbyterian this summer. Granted, my ideas may not seem particularly insightful, but I share them with you in hopes that they will become more so. As you should do with all counsel (solicited or unsolicited) from others, chew on the meat, spit out the bones, and pray the Spirit would wash away any bad taste left in your mouth.

In close, don’t take yourself too seriously or your sin too lightly. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Have a great summer.

Welcome, Interns (Part 2)

In Church, Education, Seminary on November 1, 2009 at 11:54 pm

(Here's part 2 of "Welcome, Interns" for my
Educational Leadership class. Part 1 is here.)

1) Change is not the enemy; loss (real or perceived) is. Believe it or not, people are open to change, but usually not for change’s sake. As unspiritual as it sounds, people tend to evaluate change by how it impacts them, and most resist change if said impact is (or seems) negative. Don’t waste emotional energy if people push back against your initiatives; figure out why they’re doing so by asking, “What are they afraid of losing?”

2) Challenging (not upholding) the status quo is your role as a leader. I’m guessing that during your internship, you’ll experience more than a few “this is how we do things around here” moments. These are not exclusive to churches – businesses, government, and the military have their own versions – but they are especially interesting coming at the hands of the church member who seems to have more power than the elder board combined; or the Sunday School teacher who is a curriculum terrorist and threatens to blow up anything he or she hasn’t used before; or a moody staff member who's the only one with the keys. You’re probably not going to be around long enough to change folks like these (it takes years), but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask fair questions, suggest creative improvements, and encourage others to persevere in their battles against the status quo. This is what leaders do, so don’t let differences (real or perceived) between your role and your circumstances here at First Presbyterian convince you otherwise.

3) Save your breath to cool your coffee…or learn to like it really hot. You’ve probably heard that you have to pick your battles, but you have to pick the timing of your battles as well. This is true not just in your day-to-day interactions with others; it’s true in your understanding of the wider scope of First Presbyterian’s history. Before you give in to your seemingly insatiable itch to criticize those all-important decisions regarding worship style, sanctuary color scheme, or bulletin font, do yourself a favor and research the when, what, and why of who made those decisions and how. You don’t know how much heat you can take right now, but you’ll find out soon enough if you pick the wrong time to fight a battle, wrong or right. Major on the majors and leave the minor stuff to those who don’t know better (but will soon learn).

4) Never, ever write off anyone, especially those who are your biggest critics. I can think of at least ten people in the past five years who I was once tempted to write off (and probably tell off as well) for being or seeming a hindrance to the purposes of God, only to encounter them in a completely different context in church or in life at a later date actually making a difference. For all its universality, the Body of Christ is a small world (the PCA is even smaller), and often the quickest way you can hamstring the process of making your contribution within it is to write off the potential of others to make theirs. By grace, people can change; if you don’t believe that, you have no business being in ministry.

5) It’s not experience that’s the best teacher; it’s evaluated experience. Any long-term benefit of your internship will be in direct proportion to the amount of your short-term evaluation done not just on your own, but with someone else here committed to your success. Peers can be helpful in this area, as can participants within your particular ministry context, but I can’t stress enough the importance of seeking, finding, and pursuing a Paul to your Timothy in order to process all that you’ll learn. Life and ministry are both less about having a closet of “Been There, Done That” T-shirts and more about having someone honestly engage with you about how each one fits…or how it doesn’t. Find that person now.

(To be concluded tomorrow.)