Monthly Archives: December 2013

The contours but…

In so many areas there is a spectrum of knowledge ranging between knowing the the specific details and the overall shape.  With people, especially, we have pieces of each from which we build inferences and make deductions to understand who this is.

I continue to reflect on the death of a friend and mentor who I knew only a year.  I had some details, from which a broader picture was emerging and in attending his memorial service much more was added.  Pieces of his life which I had guessed at became clearer and a richer picture emerged, yet so much is still broad strokes.  And as I’ve thought about his life the story of Elijah’s departure from this world has come to my mind.  For those unfamiliar with the story you should check out 2 Kings 2.  Elijah knows he is going to be taken from earth by God and makes his last round visiting the schools of the prophets and being followed by his successor Elisha.  Elisha will not leave his master’s side and here is their closing dialogue…

Elijah says to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha responds, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.”   Elijah says, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.

In fact, Elisha does see his master “taken up” as Elijah is separated from him by chariots of fire and horses of fire as Elijah is taken up in whirlwind.  After crying out, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  Elisha takes up Elijah’s cloak (which had fallen off) and after ripping his own wraps it around himself.  In the Hebrew scriptures clothing and office (king, prophet, priest) are related, kind of like a generals uniform and stripes.  There is a lot that I do not understand about this story but the contours…
-of Elijah’s life in which he wholeheartedly gives himself to God’s cause
-of the supernatural, larger than life, character of Elijah
 -of mentoring or bringing along this broad array of men known as the “sons of the prophets” in different locations
-of a close follower who trails after and who desires to 
emulate and embody the essence of the one who has gone before hand
-of the prayer that God would give a portion, actually more, of what Elijah had

I see these points overlapping with my friends life and while I am not the close follower like Elisha I see myself as one among the “sons of the prophets” who were influenced and encouraged by him.  But I also think that I can ask God for a portion of what I saw in this Godly man’s life:
-a profound sense of being a child of God; deeply loved, forgiven, healed and in the process of being renewed through Jesus Christ
-a robust life; becoming more whole spiritually, emotionally, relationally…
-a prevailing, unending and overcoming hope in God and his ability to change people through the gospel
-a vibrant faith in God expressed in a life of prayer and worship
-a warmth and readiness to love people, be hurt by them, forgive them and do this over and over again
-a development mindset; always mentoring, encouraging, seeing the potential in people, and particularly guiding many men into ministry
-a family life that is valued above “work,” in which each person is deeply cherished

These are the contours that I see and want to emulate.  I know these good things are gifts of God and ask for them in my life and in the lives of the other “sons of the prophets.”  In some small measure I understand Elisha looking on his predecessor’s departure, mourning that future that they will not share, and  wanting to follow in that same path.  “‘My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and it’s horseman!’  And he saw him no more.”

Do not give up

Jesus “told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”  Luke 18:1

These were some of the last words I heard from a friend and mentor who was called into the presence of God this past week.  I’m still reflecting on his memorial service which I was privileged to attend.   One of the many ways he was lovingly described was as a man of prayer.  I came across this quote recently in a dissertation about prayer and the work of beginning (planting) a new church,

The planter must choose to devote energy to the daily task list or choose that which is better. To sacrifice prayer in favor of activity, however, is to sacrifice unity (John 17:11), boldness (Acts 4:31), a harvest (Matt. 9:38), growth (Eph. 1:17), open doors (Col. 4:3), wisdom (Jas. 1:5), courage (2 Thess. 2:16), and peace (Phil. 4:6-7). Prayer also develops faith.

I was struck by the length and significance of this list and believe that even more could be added (power, for example, Acts 1:8, 14).  It is difficult to wrap our arms around the necessity and significance of prayer, yet I still find myself pulled to the daily task list.  So, at some level I am truly thankful for the uncertainty, confusion, weakness, and desperation that I feel, in varying degrees, as we begin a church in Worcester.  I remember how insufficient I am and am again driven to God.  In this posture of dependency I sometimes find answers or a growing sense clarity but the best moments are when I find God himself, who is better than certainty or strength.

If I, or we as a church, sacrifice prayer for activity there is a terrible cost which is hinted at the gospel of John when Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  But there is more at stake than accomplishing nothing.  Jesus continues, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  While “abiding” cannot be solely equated with prayer, prayer is a constituent part.  A Christian life, without prayer is not a Christian life.  How can a prayerless church be a church (Mark 11:17)?  If you are legally married to your spouse,  but do not speak, is this a marriage?  The frigid and painful silence, in which every other sound is amplified by the dead quiet; the words forever stuck on the tip of your tongue; the lonely mornings and nights without greetings or goodbyes – this is a kind of hell.  What is it like not to pray?  It is a cold, gray whirlpool which wants to drag me in and drown me under its mute waves.  But fear is not enough, there must be love which in the long run will bring us back to engage, to speak.

Cultivating a life of prayer, as an individual and as a church, is in many ways comparable to cultivating any Christian virtue, however I think there should be particular attention to paid to praying as a church, as it is so hard to do.  So, as we being a church, how do we build together a church of prayer?

-You need some types of routine or pattern.  There is the continued danger or dead ritual and formal obedience without engaging the heart but sustained action of any type requires an ongoing form or shape.  While spontaneity must be encouraged and given expression I don’t think you can build on spontaneity over the long haul.

-I came across one church who asked its members to pray for their leadership at one of their meals each day.  This practice not only helps the congregation pray but supports the leadership through prayer, builds unity, and promotes a sense of ownership for each person praying.

-Prayer in the church’s gathered worship is a clear avenue for teaching people how to pray, praying for the congregation and the missions of the church, praying together in song, and joining together in both written and spontaneous prayers.  I know of churches with multiple services where a group who worshiped earlier or later would gather to pray while the other service was conducted.  At another church the leadership or a small group committed to prayer would meet beforehand and pray.

-Prayer meetings: these can happen on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis.  They can be set in the yearly schedule or called on occasions of specific need.  Personally, I would like to have three or so major prayer gatherings each year in which we pray for three to five hours.  I’m not sure if this is too intense or if smaller meetings regularly interspersed would be better.  I read of a puritan minister who would spend his birthday and the anniversary of his ordination in prayer and fasting.  I wonder if we will have similar points of remembrance in our church which we can set apart to remember what God has done, ask for continued grace, and humble ourselves under his hand.

More feasting and less advent?

There are many odd twists of history in which opponents become supporters.  Historically, Presbyterians (and most protestants) were opposed to Christmas as a Christian Holy Day.  There does seem to be some recognition though, of it’s role as a day of rest from labor with significance  in secular society as a reprieve for workers.  Currently, Christians can tend to push back against the secular nature and associated materialism of the holiday, emphasizing the day’s spiritual nature.  Both perspectives would seem foreign to the other and yet they both make sense in their own historical setting.  This isn’t merely a curiosity though for me, but incredibly practical as we begin a church.  How do we as a church understand and relate to days like Christmas and Easter or “church seasons” like advent or lent.

The basic rational for not observing Christmas is twofold.  First, is the rejection of the Catholic understanding of worship as a “Mass” in which Christ is again crucified as the eucharist is celebrated.  The second part of the rational is that humans can’t come up with Holy Days.  Check out this quote from Samuel Davies, a theologian and pastor, (from his Christmas Day sermon in 1758)

I think it proper to inform you, that I may guard against this danger, that I do not set apart this day for public worship, as though it had any peculiar sanctity, or we were under any obligations to keep it religiously. I know no human authority, that has power to make one day more holy than another, or that can bind the conscience in such cases. And as for divine authority, to which alone the sanctifying of days and things belongs, it has thought it sufficient to consecrate one day in seven to a religious use, for the commemoration both of the birth of this world, and the resurrection of its great Author, or of the works of creation and redemption. This I would religiously observe; and inculcate the religious observance of it upon all. But as to other days, consecrated by the mistaken piety or superstition of men, and conveyed down to us as holy, through the corrupt medium of human tradition, I think myself free to observe them or not, according to conveniency, and the prospect of usefulness; like other common days, on which I may lawfully carry on public worship or not, as circumstances require.   

I find the logic of this argument compelling.  Since there is no biblical warrant for celebrating Christ’s birth (or evening knowing when it was) there is freedom to observe or not.  Practically, I think there are two tensions as we think about Christmas, Easter, and other such days in the life of the church.

First, we are not to make too much of it.  Every single day the Christian is meant to remember all that Jesus has done for his people.  We are to think on his entrance into this world, his suffering on our behalf, his resurrection from the dead, and ascension to God’s right hand.  Furthermore, we need to dispel superstition as if going to church, serving others, or contemplating Christ this one day is more significant than any other.  We should be thankful for the opportunity to rest from work, spend time with loved ones, and simply celebrate the good gifts that God has given.  We should strive to avoid materialism, greed, self-indulgence, and anger on Christmas just like every other day.  Should Christians push for a more “spiritual” observance of Christmas in the broader culture, more fully acknowledging the Christian roots of the holiday?  Not necessarily.  I’m glad that Christmas is a time of year when people who are not Christians or those with some tangential connection to the Christian faith may be more open to spirituality or attend a church, but if Christians are free to observe this day, or not observe, I’d have a hard time pushing the “spiritual significance” of the day for the nation as a whole.

While I would not make to much of Christmas, and such holidays, I think we should use these days for all they are worth.  There are all sorts of unique opportunities due to the historical presence of Christianity in our country.  There is the opportunity to talk informally about spiritual matters, welcome many to church who do not normally attend, pool extra resources to care for the needy, and simply rest.  It is a time when Christians are open to attending extra worship services, are willing to engage in more focused meditation on scripture or prayer, and are often looking for something to anchor them amidst busyness, challenging family dynamics, and the pull of materialism.  Thus offering extra church services, service opportunities and devotional materials makes complete sense.  None of this should be commanded or implied that it is necessary.  This is even an opportunity to warn against man made rules, the burdens of religion, and superstition.

Furthermore, I find that the “advent season” leading up to Christmas and “lent” which leads up to the celebration of Easter can add a helpful rhythm to the disordered and scattered lives the many of us lead.  So many in our communities live away from family without a sense of rootedness or belonging.  Other than an annual vacation or the beginning the school year few families have rhythms that give continuity and shape to the year.  With the above caveats about “holy days” in mind, I believe that the church can serve her people through these historical rhythms.  In practice churches often take on annual rhythms, whether they are related to conferences, a preaching schedule, or the flow of the seasons.  If you are going to have a rhythm as a church it might as well cycle along with the life of Christ.  I think it is challenging to take advantage of the opportunities that “Christian holidays” provide without falling into the dangers but it is an effort we’re going to make.

Status & insecurity

About a year ago I was listening to a radio piece by Freakonomics which was commenting on the trend among basketball players to wear these thick black rimmed glasses during interviews.  It turns out that very few of these are prescription lenses and the narrator of the story takes us through different explanations.  He eventually speaks with an economics professor at Harvard who also wears nonprescription glass.  The story takes a further twist when this Harvard professor shares the story of an unnamed colleague who dyes his hair gray so that he will be “taken seriously.”  The thick rimmed glasses and especially the Harvard professor dying his hair can seem a little ridiculous.  These stories however, strike close to home.  I recently turned thirty-three and wonder how long I will continue as a “young man?”  Is there a number or is it simply a look, a perception?

As I think about age, as a status symbol (yes, this sounds odd), here are four categories that collect my thoughts: Irony, History,  Necessity and Collapse, and Grace.

Irony:  With age you’re too old and are out of touch.  You’re probably not innovative or tech savvy and will have a hard time keeping up with the new competition.  If you’re not old you lack real world experience.  Your advice is suspect and you don’t understand the bigger picture.  In different fields there are certainly predispositions to age or youth, but in the majority of settings this tension seems to arise.  We want people to be both old and young at the same moment.  So the recent grad in his twenties dresses more formally with the suit and tie while the guy late in his fifties wears the sport coat with jeans.  All to fit this non-existent age.

History:  I continue to read about the cultural history of New England and recently came across a section on age:

The people of seventeen-entry New England lived in another world.  They carefully cultivated an attitude of respect for the old, and ranked people in proportion to their age.  ‘These two qualities go together, the ancient and the honorable,’ wrote Cotton Mather

…Old age was a sign of grace.  Respect for age was not merely an ideal… it became a living reality.

Most elderly people were treated with respect in New England, no matter whether rich or poor, male or female, weak or strong.

According to this author a member’s role and influence in the community were assigned based on age, estate, and reputation (normally in that order).  While this paradigm has significantly changed I think there are carry overs, though laced with the above noted irony.

Necessity & Collapse:  One of the neat things about age, as a “status symbol” is that it is achievable by all types of people.  It gives a path towards significance and contribution in a community which is open to all.  Consider this quote from a piece in the NY times:  

there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man’s hierarchy, the artist’s hierarchy, the intellectual’s hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.

Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture. Meanwhile, the rival status hierarchies have fallen away. The meritocratic hierarchy of professional success is pretty much the only one left standing.

The culture was probably more dynamic when there were competing status hierarchies. When there is one hegemonic hierarchy, as there is today, the successful are less haunted by their own status and the less successful have nowhere to hide.

Another quote 

After tracking the life-goals of first-year college students, Astin found that in the mid-1960s there were about 45% of college students who rated “being very well off financially” as a very important objective. That figure jumped to 75% by the mid-1980s. When Astin asked those same students about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” over 80% of the mid-1960s students endorsed that as a goal. By the mid-1980s the number of students who aspired to that same goal had dropped to just a little more than 30%. Cote concludes that money-seeking goals and meaning-seeking goals have traded places among those transitioning to adulthood. He writes, “the American college-educated population is far more interested in ‘making money’ than ‘making meaning.'”

We need other means of understanding worth outside of financial success.  What happens if the only way to be worthwhile, is to be worth a lot?  Historically age has been a source of significance and place that was accessible to all and it is sad that in many ways we have lost this category.

Grace:  I think much of our clamoring for status (of all sorts) has to do with insecurity and questions of belonging, significance, and place.  In both the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament God gives significance and a place to the weak and undeserving.  The fundamental status of belonging to God comes by grace, not as a reward for achievement.  We all wonder if we have done enough to make it, to fit in, and to every single person God says, “No, you have not.”  Fundamentally belonging only comes as a gift and it throws all of these other pursuits of status up in the air.  If you have a place with God, being respected because of your age, glasses, wealth, or success has less of a hold on your life.  Grace, also gives meaning to each stage of life – recognizing that God has lovingly placed each person in a specific meaning for a specific moment.  As a young man, there are specific things God wants me to do and as an older man, there will be unique things for that stage.  If our status isn’t ultimately bound up in who we are or what we contribute it gives us greater freedom to do what God has specifically entrusted for that time.

I try to imagine what it would be in the church to more fully exemplify the grace of God in regards to status.  I imagine a church in which you see both the old, young, and middle aged recognized and encouraged.  Stories of God’s work in the lives of the poor and the wealthy are both celebrated.  What else would I see if God’s grace shakes and realigns our conceptions of status?  I’d probably have greater freedom in the unique point at which God has me.

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