a few nuggets of gold mixed in with a lot of randomnity.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Evangelicals Don't Think

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of evangelical Christian life—let me be more specific . . . of life in the Southern Baptist Convention—is the absolute repugnance for thinking which seems to be epidemic across the convention. Numerous examples could be mustered to demonstrate this sad fact, but a recent episode at a church with which I am quite familiar will suffice.

This particular church happens to be in the middle of a search for a new pastor. Recently, I have learned that one of the questions the committee is asking of new candidates is simply, “Are you a Calvinist?” If the candidate answers in the affirmative, the church immediately disqualifies him. [To be fair, I have received other information that “we might consider a 3- or 4-point Calvinist but not a 5-point, hyper-Calvinist”] When asked the reason for this stance on Calvinism, the committee has stated that they wish to avoid anything which could cause division. Evidently, the search committee had heard of the struggles at Dauphin Way Baptist Church and wished to avoid the same issues.


Several points of clarification need to be made. First, as far as can be determined the search committee was only familiar with Dauphin Way Baptist Church through secondary “research”—i.e., reading articles like the one linked above. Second, these “qualifications” were determined by the pastor search committee in a congregation-led church, evidently without input from the congregation. The church itself has no official stance on the so-called “points of Calvinism”.

Without even getting into the merits of Calvinism and the superficial understanding of the issues displayed by the type of questioning being used by this committee, this scenario displays at least part of what is wrong with the SBC (and American evangelicalism as a whole).

Let’s look at what has happened here.

This committee has heard of a problem at another church and has heard that the problem (or at least part of it) stemmed from the fact that the pastor taught “Calvinistic” doctrines. Then, utilizing the largest brushstrokes possible, the committee has decided to avoid anyone who considers himself a Calvinist for fear of division. Do I even need to highlight the mass of assumptions that are being made in this decision? The leaps in the logic process are astounding, and the unwillingness to think through issues is troubling, at the least.

Let me be clear: the problems in this scenario reach far beyond mere doctrinal issues (although the lack of theological depth is a severe problem—and that charge does not stem from the anti-Calvinism stance taken by the committee), and my response to this committee’s actions would be the same if the particular hot-point issue were the candidates’ hair color rather than their stance on Calvinism. The idea that one particular problem at another church somehow translates to an across the board, absolute, and very general response is the type of reactionary non-thinking I would hope churches could move beyond.

The fact that this scenario involves a severe lack of understanding of doctrinal issues only exacerbates the problem and demonstrates some of the major depth issues facing the evangelical church in the 21st century. [Again, this is not because of their “conclusions” on Calvinism. Although I consider myself Reformed in my theology, I know plenty of people who would easily—and gladly—wear the title “Remonstrant” who have a great understanding of the doctrinal issues. One such individual had the same reaction as me when I explained this particular scenario.] One of the long-standing criticisms of the evangelical community—and Southern Baptists—is that adherents “check their minds at the door”. Ridiculous scenarios such as the one described above do nothing to counter that criticism.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Dealing with Pain from the Church

I am sort of in the middle of an on-going conversation with several people (including my closest friends ... i.e., my wife and my mentor) regarding the concept of forgiveness—both of oneself and of others. Before I begin rambling about some of these thoughts, etc., let me give a little bit of background information that may give some much-needed context.

My family and I are only about a year removed from some horrific experiences at a church we attended. Those experiences combined with the experiences of several friends at other churches—four close ministerial friends were pushed out of their ministerial jobs and are not currently in the full-time ministry; another friend was made several promises by the church where he worked for nearly a decade only to have the church completely renege on all said promises, thereby forcing this particular minister to look for ministry work elsewhere; another close friend served on a pastoral search committee that called a pastor only to have several problems with this particular pastor, causing a great deal of division in the church and leaving my friend looking for a new church home; the list could probably continue—have left me somewhat bewildered about the nature of the church, and, more importantly, about the nature of forgiveness. In discussions with all those involved, I have found some consistent themes that have a great deal of bearing on my thoughts.

First, as one can imagine from the fact that these people and events were all connected with evangelical church ministry, all of the people involved claim to be evangelical Christians. They understand the concept of forgiveness, and all base that concept of forgiveness on Almighty God and the consummate expression of forgiveness, namely Christ on the cross and His resurrection.

Secondly, all of these people have thought through their respective situation(s) at great length. Not all of these people have come to the same conclusion—some have ascribed all of the blame to themselves; others have seen plenty of blame to go around on both (all) sides; others have seen themselves as completely blameless—but all have spent a great deal of time thinking through their situation. Most of these people have discussed the situation with several other people. In fact, for a given amount of time, each of my friends (and I am included in that group) found him-/herself obsessing over the events of the given situation.

Thirdly, every single individual has moved on from the sad situation. The most recent of these happenings occurred a mere four months prior to this writing; the most distant occurred some two-plus years ago. When I say “has moved on,” I do not necessarily mean “has put the entire situation behind them.” In fact, that leads to the fourth theme.

Fourth, every single individual still deals with aspects of pain, bitterness, hurt, or simply “raw” feelings. Several friends have suggested that they would prefer not to talk about and/or hear about their previous churches because of the hurt and/or anger with which they still have to deal. Another friend asked that the only mention of the previous church be reminders to pray—that way, any untoward and/or painful feelings can be taken directly to God. In other words, for every single person involved (myself included), the feelings remain all too fresh. Indeed for another friend (one I had not thought of previously, whose painful situation occurred some 15 years ago), the memories remain difficult to handle.

And so the questions begin to arise: is something wrong with all of us? Have we somehow not understood the meaning of forgiveness? I mean, so many people say that we should be able to move on once true forgiveness has occurred. Now, I recognize that the human brain does not work in such a way so as to allow complete dissolution of painful memories. In fact, it works in just the opposite way (at times)—i.e., the more painful the memory, the easier it is to remember (up to a point ... I do recognize that once an event becomes technically traumatic, in the psychological sense, those rules do not necessarily apply). Regardless, one must wonder whether true forgiveness has been granted to oneself and/or others if the very memory of the other party(ies) involved brings tears or anger or pain.

To be honest, I am not sure at all what to do with those issues. I have some thoughts on the subject ... actually one of my best friends had some thoughts. Specifically, this friend suggests to spend conscious time praying for the other party. (This is the same friend that asked only to be reminded to pray for the other party ... no other mention of the church was desired). This doesn’t mean that the pain goes away, but it does mean that the pain leads somewhere worthwhile. Just off the cuff, I am reminded of Paul’s (oft-cited) thorn in the flesh, and I can’t help but wonder if that may have been pain from any number of his church-torturing days (perhaps the stoning of Stephen). If so, that pain was left in place by God as a reminder of His grace ... perhaps that is the purpose of raw feelings, pain, anger left from some horrendous scenarios at churches. Perhaps.

Ultimately, all of us involved need to spend some time sincerely seeking wise counsel, plumbing the depths of our own souls (not using that term in a technical/theological sense) in an effort to completely deal with the situations. Let’s face it: it is extremely easy to simply say we have dealt with a situation, given (or accepted or both) forgiveness; it is another thing altogether to actually forgive and accept forgiveness. All too often, I think we move on too quickly, thereby artificially sabotaging the healing process and cheating ourselves (and perhaps the other party/ies) from true forgiveness. Too often, we do not accept that we have guilt to bear in the painful situation; we become self-righteous, deflecting all guilt simply as a defense mechanism for our battered psyches. Hopefully, as we mature in Christ we will be able to see these situations as insights into our own continued sinful lives, insights which will drive us back to our knees in humble adoration of God’s all-encompassing love!

If we have come to that place already—we have honestly dealt with the situation, accepted blame, learned about ourselves and others, and become awestruck at God’s amazing grace—and we still deal with raw feelings, perhaps my friend’s suggestion is the best: return to prayer at every thought of the other party. Remind yourself of your own learning curve, and simply pray that God would bless that church’s ministry. Return to the awesomeness of God’s grace ... that He could forgive me (a saint who is still a SINNER!) ... and think of the awesomeness of that grace that encompasses that church, those people, them.

Before I end, let me give a warning ... this is not intended to be a cure-all. This is not a cheesy suggestion about how to make it all go away. I’m not suggesting that prayer will somehow magically make the pain cease. I’m not even suggesting that the pain is supposed to go away or that the raw feelings are supposed to be gone. I’m simply giving what I think is a coping mechanism ... not for ourselves so much (though that is a nice by-product) but for the church-at-large. I mean, if everyone who has ever been involved in nasty situation at a church could always turn to God upon every remembrance of that event, I think we would probably all be praying all the time. Maybe that’s where Paul gets the idea to “pray without ceasing.” (sorry, bad joke).

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Real Comfort

So here I am … sitting on a plane next to my son who has been sleeping in his car seat for the past several hours. On the other side of him, my wife looks rather uncomfortable, yet she has been able to sleep for a couple of hours as well. I have to admit, part of me envies the two of them. How I wish I could get some sleep on this plane. Without it, jetlag is going to be a real pain, but for some reason sleep simply won’t come.

It’s funny. Normally, I can’t help but fall asleep on planes. I’m the one who could even sleep on the short 18 minute commuter flight between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Not tonight. Tonight is different. Tonight, I am struggling with the idea that my life is in the midst of a great deal of flux. Tonight I am struggling with the idea that as of the end of this flight, I no longer call America my home. Tonight I am struggling with the fact that I am now a grad student at Oxford. Tonight I am struggling with the fact that I have no clue how I will afford this place … or, for that matter, how I will be able to provide for my family. Tonight, I am scared.

It’s not easy for me to admit that. I’m supposed to be the rock of the family. I’m supposed to be the spiritual leader. I’m supposed to be “the smart one.” And here I am scared enough that I can’t sleep at 11:15 Central Time … that’s 5:15 AM Oxford Time.

And then … on my MP3 player a familiar voice begins to sing. It’s beautiful … even though I am tone deaf, I can tell. Besides, everyone else has also said how beautiful my wife’s voice is (if you haven’t heard it, you should!), and some of that “everyone else” includes some very talented professional musicians. But tonight, it’s not the voice that I am listening to … although, there is great comfort in that voice! Tonight, I am listening to the song …

Holy, Holy

Holy is the Lord God almighty

And there is the comfort I need. I do not find that comfort in answers. I do not find that comfort in someone showing me money in my bank account (although, come on … that would be GREAT!). I do not find comfort in someone handing me a diploma or even in showing me the future. No. I find comfort in the fact that the Lord God Almighty is Holy.

Let me be honest. That comfort does not take away the fear. That comfort does not dry the tears or help me to miss my dog (Nemo … he’s a GREAT Jack Russell Terrier) any less. As a side note … the first time I cried when we left today was when I had to say goodbye to Nemo. I miss him. … That comfort does not mean the pain or unknowns are mitigated, but it does remind me that through all that the Holy Lord God remains Almighty. And it’s nice to know that regardless of how large or small my problems are or seem, He remains Holy Lord God Almighty, worthy to be praised.

Now that’s comfort!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Tough Lesson Learned

I have recently had the opportunity to meditate upon a tough lesson I learned a few months ago, and I thought it appropriate to share this lesson with ... well, with whomever happens to read this blog. The lesson, one in good pastoring, was not pre-meditated. I did not seek an opportunity to learn. To the contrary, this particular opportunity sort of jumped up and bit me in the face (or some other body part) ... as is so often the case with the good lessons in life.

On this particular occasion, my wife, my infant son, and I met a dear friend (I'll call her Kathy) for dinner. This is one of those life-long friends who is close to both myself and my wife, one of those friends for whom you always want the best, one who is so close that any pain he/she experiences affects you as if it were happening directly to you. Kathy is one of those once-in-a-lifetime friends -- I am blessed with several of them.

In this particular conversation, the normally-jovial conversation quickly took on a deep, contemplative air with some extremely serious connotations attached. In fact, I believe I recall tears from several people at the table (including my infant son who suddenly decided that the rest of the restaurant should hear his rather loud, ear-piercing screams!). In the midst of the conversation, Kathy mentioned a continuing struggle to determine her current role in life. This particular struggle (a struggle that is not foreign to many people, I should think) had risen to near-debilitating status for Kathy -- a fact which could not only be seen in her tears but could also be heard in the extremely clear desperation in her voice.

In the midst of this conversation, this vivid recounting of Kathy's emotionally charged immediate past, Kathy noted that he had sought advice from all of her "mentors." One particularly influential mentor noted Kathy's now year-long emotional roller coaster ride and mentioned the possibility of some chemical issues needing a professional diagnosis. Given my history with several individuals who suffer from psychological diseases and my undergraduate psychology degree, I thought Kathy would be well-served to heed the advice and at least seek some professional help. What I thought was good advice, however, was not taken as such by Kathy. In fact, the advice (that I could imagine myself giving and that I had already verbally concurred with) completely alienated Kathy and simply made her feel completely pushed aside -- as if her struggles in life were not real, simply a product of some malfunction in her body.

I sat at the table listening to Kathy's explanation of her feelings (trying hard to hear through my normally happy son's now very loud, almost ear-piercing screams). To be honest, I was completely confused by her reaction to what I thought was very sensible advice. My mind started racing through all of the reasons this advice made sense ... Kathy's age, the events of her recent past, her family history. As Kathy's tears started to flow again, I realized two things: 1. my wife was also crying ... she somehow understood Kathy's predicament; she felt her pain. 2. I wasn't crying; I didn't really understand her pain ... no matter how hard I tried. Whether it was my maleness or my sometimes dangerous reliance on ration, something inherent to who I am prevented me from really "getting it." I couldn't understand it. Here I was ... a seminary-educated pastor completely at a loss when one of my closest friends needed pastoral "counseling."

And that's when I learned the lesson: sometimes the best pastoral counseling is simply to leave the person alone, to allow someone else to step in. That can be an extremely difficult realization for me ... that someone else may be better in a given situation than I am. Luckily for Kathy, I left, taking my very tired son with me, and I allowed my wife to sympathize with Kathy in a way that would never have been possible for me. I allowed Kathy to avoid my overly-logical reactions, and to simply have a friend walk alongside her in her life struggles. That was precisely what Kathy needed, and that was precisely what I wasn't able to give at that point.

Later that night, I emailed Kathy with an apology ... for originally reacting out of logic rather than feeling, for being too much of a guy, for not simply being there. I apologized to her, and I thanked her ... for a tough lesson well taught.

Imagine that, sometimes the best thing for me to do is simply to leave. I'm sure there are plenty of other people who wish I had learned that lesson a long time ago. My apologies to you all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


You can't think about life in the west for long without realizing how completely individualistic we are, how everything in life is about "me" -- how to make my life better, how to increase my wealth. That is all well and good, and, despite its obvious detrimental impact on social organization, cultural individualism could actually help a society survive (perhaps). The more individuals want to better themselves, the better a society/culture will be. In other words, society benefits from the drive of the individual to "get better." This is the theory behind capitalism, is it not?

Sadly, that individualistic attitude--the "I before you, them, or even us" mentality--has noticeably (and regrettably) reached the church. This is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination; however, the detrimental effects are being felt in new (and potentially deadly) ways. The contemporary church struggles to see beyond the supreme "I" to anyone else's problems, needs, feelings, etc. The once-defining characteristic of "other-love" found especially within the confines of the church has become the exception rather than the rule. What once was a given for Christian communities (to take care of the poor, the hungry, the homeless), now is worthy of news stories--not because the event is so dramatic but because it is so rare!

This individualism strikes at the heart of every aspect of Christianity--from the pulpits on Sunday morning (or any other day, for that matter) to the ubiquitous Christian literature that fills bookshelves and bookstores. A recent survey of best-selling Christian literature shows this individualism to be radically changing the doctrinal landscape of contemporary Christianity. For instance, sin (as defined by those best-selling books) deals only with the individual and God ... no one else is involved. This harmonizes nicely with the feel-good sermons emanating from American pulpits where one can hear sermons on the "7 steps to success" or "how to get what you want from God" but will rarely hear sermons on selling all you have and giving the money to the poor or on the importance of being other-focused.

Perhaps I am being too critical. Perhaps I am generalizing too much--characterizing all of contemporary Christianity by the few who are louder than the rest. Perhaps I am. But even if that's the case, are they not part of the rest of us who claim the name of Christ? And are we not part of them? Isn't that the point? If I can simply write them off as being the few who do not speak for the whole, then am I not succumbing to the same individualism? Perhaps that means that Christians need to step up to the plate, so to speak, and, instead of blaming others, take the blame upon themselves. Perhaps that means that I need to step up to the plate, and, instead of blaming others, take the blame upon myself. And repent--for the sins of the community, for the sins of Christians, for the sins of Christianity--not because I did these things, but because I am a part of a community that has made mistakes and continues to make mistakes.

How else can we move past the supremacy of the I?

Monday, January 09, 2006

disgusted with consumer-oriented theology

I have recently become more and more disgusted with the consumer-based theology that so dominates the American religious scene: the short snipets of cliched theology intended to "simplify" God (or god) for the masses; the hit-and-miss "evangelism" that focuses the entire conversation on a transaction rather than a relationship; the "see people as targets rather than people" mentality. Ugh!

Maybe I should explain a little about myself. I grew up Southern Baptist and am an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Having recently graduated from a (fairly) prominent evangelical seminary with a masters of theology and having been an active part of American evangelical churches all of my life, I feel I have seen more than my fair share of asinine theology finding its way into the everyday practices of those who claim to be religious.

Let me back up a moment before I come across as overly critical (I only want to come across as critical ... not overly critical). I am not against anyone wanting to share their faith--evangelical Christian, liberal Christian (are these even fair modifiers?), Buddhist, Islamic, or otherwise. In my opinion, the more people are talking and sharing about God, god, and/or gods ... well, the more people do that, the more interesting discussions for the world to hear, analyze, critique, and get up in arms about (that is what we all do, right?). However, I am against the idea that God (or religions, etc.) should be used as some sort of excuse to sucker punch someone with unthought-out, trite axioms that may or may not have anything to do with the recipient of this particular evangelistic effort. Sadly, I find this to be the method-of-choice for some evangelicals of the day.

To be fair, I also find that most evangelicals who are interested in sharing their faith are well-intentioned and kind-hearted. Unfortunately, good intentions and kind hearts do not always lead one to a legitimate or beneficial methodology when it comes to evangelism or faith-talk (or practically anything else, for that matter). For all the good intentions, evangelical attempts to force anyone into a particular understanding of God without so much as paying attention to the makeup, character, lifestyle, etc. of the person involved comes across as nothing short of a farcical attempt to appease one's own religiously-mandated (perhaps self-imposed?) "acts of service."

Perhaps we (as Christians ... and others as Buddhists or followers of Islam or ... but I can only credibly speak for Christians--and American evangelical Christians, at that) should re-think our attempts at evangelization and move from an end/result focused evangelism to a person/understanding focused one. We should move from a transaction-based approach (only pleased with a "decision") to a relationship-based one in which the goal of evangelism is faith-talk rather than faith-imposition. Perhaps ...