One of the first things a counselor (of any type) will tell you is that if you want to change a behavior, the best place to start is by monitoring what your current behavior is. If you want to change your eating habits, for instance, you would keep a food log for a couple weeks to observe what you are actually putting in your mouth. Then when it is time to start the behavioral change project, you know where your points of vulnerability are, you know how much of a change is required, and you get a pretty good idea of what to do to change course. If you are honest and complete in your log, self-monitoring is also a good foil against self-deception. Human beings have a huge capacity to sweep reality under the rug, underestimate its impact, or avoid accountability simply by changing the facts one keeps track of.

It has been said that what gets measured gets valued. A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church came to the conclusion that they were measuring the wrong signs as indicators of their success. While they attracted a lot of people into their worship services (easy to measure), there was a disappointing lack of evidence that the throngs were actually growing more mature and deeper in their faith commitment (something notoriously hard to measure, but everybody would agree is more important than just church attendance). When it comes to measuring progress in the Christian life, congregations and denominations have a difficult time getting to the real issues related to discipleship.

One such area where I think a study should be conducted [within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tribe] is the relatively new 1001 New Worshiping Communities project trumpeted at the 2012 General Assembly. As was reported in my blog last week, one such new worshiping community sponsored within San Francisco Presbytery seems to have gone sideways, as evidenced by the so-called worship experience it led for the September presbytery meeting. And yet, at the 2014 General Assembly, news of the proliferation of new, experimental communities was applauded based primarily on the number of new groups formed and grants distributed (easy to track). It did not report the number of groups that formed and failed nor did it report the theological center-of-gravity. I do not believe that the numbers collected so far are telling the real story, but you can find that report by going to www.pc-biz.org and adding key words 14-01 to see the story the General Assembly was given.

Lest you get the wrong impression, let me just say that I am all in favor of the mission of new worshiping communities that seek to make and shape new disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen to that! On its website, 1001 New Worshiping Communities defines itself:

New

  • Seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Taking on varied forms of church for our changing culture

Worshiping

  • Gathered by the Spirit to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament

  • Sent by the Spirit to join God’s mission for the transformation of the world

Community

  • Practicing mutual care and accountability

  • Developing sustainability in leadership and finances

A great starting point, n’est-ce pas? In the elaboration of this definition, “varied forms” and “innovation” have high value. In general, and within parameters, I have no problem with experimentation and innovation, because many congregations survive on the maxim WADITWB (the seven last words of the church: We’ve Always Done It That Way Before).

But immediately, I am also cautious. The word innovation, and its Presbyterian cousin “Reformed and Always Reforming” (a misquote/mistranslation of one of our hallmarks, “Reformed, and always needing reform according to the Word of God”), is fraught with temptations not only to “think outside the box” but to “go to la-la land.” My pastor friend Frank Jackson, now with Jesus, used to say, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” That is why Presbyterians rely on church discipline to keep ourselves accountable to a biblical standard—or at least we’re supposed to.

The PC(USA) and some congregations within it have not demonstrated an ability or a willingness to hold one another accountable. Recent history has shown, for example in Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery, that we are unable to define orthodoxy and therefore cannot “practice accountability” for it. What suffers, as the higher value becomes innovation, is sound doctrine, spiritual focus on the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the context of Word and Sacrament, and a differentiation between the church and culture. Hence it is possible for the experience we endured two weeks ago to be tolerated and to be perpetuated by PC(USA) grant money.

Wouldn’t this be a great Ph.D. project for someone: to visit the new worshiping communities and report on the intangibles of Christian discipleship, through carefully designed interview collection and observations of behavior within those communities? Who wants to take up the challenge?

Frustration has risen lately, as I struggle to manage a different life than I had been leading in BC days. There are so many things I must do everyday in the category of “self-maintenance,” it feels like a full-time job. Whereas I used to track progress in maybe seven concurrent work projects, my new routine includes management of:

Medications, which are taken at 7 a.m., 7 p.m., and at bedtime. Some of these meds are my old standbys for “before cancer” (BC) conditions, but the new batch addresses the aftermath of lung cancer and surgery. Two different inhalers (with different delivery techniques) and one really large pill that is difficult to swallow mean I have to think carefully before each dose. And just in the past week, my doctor and I realized that one persistent symptom is probably a side effect of a medication rather than the condition it is treating! So we adjust the dose downward and monitor what happens.

Exercise, which can amount to as much as two hours a day, if I am faithful to the entire regimen of walking or hiking (2.5 to 3.5 miles) and stretch and strengthening workouts. I love the fact that I can move and breathe and have such beautiful Open Spaces, but two hours. Wow. That’s recorded in the green spiral notebook.

Food intake, the latest in the daily monitoring category, is now under the watchful eye of a nutritionist who is helping me break through the weight-loss barrier and make the effort to retrain my body that was whacked out during chemo. This month, we’re counting carbohydrates. That’s the blue notebook.

Breathing and air quality, which fluctuates from day to day depending on atmospheric conditions (monitored with an app), fog, my exercise intensity, and other factors God makes up on the spur of the moment just to keep things interesting. I’m supposed to use my pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygenation during exercise, and take peak flow readings three times a day. If I get short of breath and do not respond with certain actions, the situation can escalate uncomfortably. In the seven-week pulmonary rehab class, I learned how to head these episodes off at the pass, and as a result feel 95% fine 99% of the time. But vigilance is required, and data collection to identify triggers pays off. That’s in the pink notebook.

Self-management would not seem so time consuming if these activities were “second nature.” Pill taking is an exception, but exercise, healthful eating, and breathing are things that every human being needs. They are a way of life, right? When they get out of whack, though, either through illness or addiction, corrective action—otherwise known as discipline—must be applied. When one’s body has cancer, one has a new set of regimens to follow. [But every single doctor who has treated me in the last year is absolutely certain that my general fitness, conditioning, and healthful eating habits in BC days were major factors in my body’s fight against cancer. I have no reason to doubt them.]

Most people have the things-to-do-everyday list of projects or healthful habits to be monitoring, too. Putting myself in the pew, reading the thoughts of regular church goers, I can just hear them say, “So now you tell me there’s one more thing I need to take care of every day?” Add to the list:

Spiritual nurture, in the form of time set aside daily for prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. Yes, as I’ve admitted in the last couple of weeks, this discipline was lagging in light of all the others above . . . and yet, the answer is the same. When life gets out of balance and my spiritual life is not nurtured, symptoms start appearing (e.g. increased worry, a bit of aimlessness, or irritability). But if faith is truly a way of life the way I want to lead it, this action is not simply an activity added to an already full calendar, it like breathing and eating and exercising—I gotta do it or I will faint. Oh, by the way, spiritual nurture is tracked in the black moleskin notebook.

[The situation makes me wonder if there is a calendar system that can track all five of these self-management areas, plus my dates and billing and meeting logs, all in one notebook!]

The only way to do what is good for me is to undergo the discipline. I’ll be honest: I am not enjoying it at the moment, any of it (except maybe the walks while the weather has been so spectacular here). What I don’t like is that I have to do these things in order to avoid negative consequences. But how I feel about them is far less important than doing them faithfully now. There’s always the hope that later, they will yield good results that make life much more fun, healthy, and available for service. Didn’t the writer of Hebrews say basically that?

“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Tomorrow: How Lack of Discipline in the Church Imperils Its Health

Every fiber of my Reformed body cringed during my presbytery’s worship time two weeks ago, described in yesterday’s post. Among people who should have known better, what we did together was not worship. It certainly was an experience—I’ll grant you that—but because it dwelled on ourselves and our experience of our bodies and never even acknowledged God’s presence, it was nothing like what you would call Reformed Worship.

In the note I finally received yesterday from our executive presbyter, Jeff Hutcheson acknowledged that the service was “outside the box,” but shared his own spiritual experience through it as significant and deeply personal. I am glad for him. Perhaps he is unaware of the many filters and reinterpretations he put on elements of that service in order for him to identify it as “the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” and “Jesus’ words.” And he did not, nor can he, account for the completely opposite reading I got on what was happening. His experience and my experience…is that what this conversation is about?

No, it really isn’t. The challenging question is, When does “outside the box” go beyond the scope and acceptable limits of Reformed worship? Some took this service to be a brilliantly creative expression of faith. I took it to be outside the box not of style but of orthodoxy, a far more serious problem. Am I just a grumpy old woman who has no sense of fun, who takes worship way too seriously, and can’t imagine any church music outside of a hymnal? May it never be! Here is what I am saying:

I am not opposed to creativity, in fact I have been moved and my faith deepened by thoughtful, wonderful expressions in art, music, drama, dance, as well as the spoken word. Someone very gifted and spiritually motivated designed the flowers for Pentecost at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley a few years ago. I happened to be there because it was then-pastor Mark Labberton’s last Sunday before moving on to Fuller Seminary. The flowers were huge displays of gladiolus in fiery colors, depicting pots of flame. How can I forget the “music video” prepared for a conference: the music was the hymn “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” sung (by the congregation) while images of a potter fashioning a lump of clay into a beautiful vessel reached into our souls.

I am not opposed to worship through music, but it has its place. As a life-long professional musician who first started leading music during worship when I was twelve, I have seen, heard, and done just about everything in the musical realm for worship. But singing isn’t everything, and as Augustine said in his Confessions, “I fluctuate between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness; inclined rather to approve of the usage of singing in the church; that so by the delight of the ears, the weaker minds may rise to the feeling of devotion.  Yet when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned, and then would rather not hear music” (Confessions, XXXIII, 50). In other words, Augustine says, I love to sing in church, but as soon as I love my voice more than the content of what I am singing, it’s time to stop.

I am not opposed to enthusiasm and exuberance, or even, for that matter, body movement during worship. Gosh, I like most pastors would love to see the people show some life and belie the observation of non-church folks that we are “the frozen chosen.” The Scripture is full of references to clapping, dance, procession, and zeal for the Lord. However, as my preaching professor said in critique of an enthusiastic African American preacher in our class, “I have to press you for content.” And so we must. “Content” equals words read, sung, painted, danced, preached, and prayed. They must pass the theological test of orthodoxy and go for content that is consistent with our biblical and confessional heritage.

Let us not forget a few things inherent in the Reformed tradition of worship:

  1. God was here before we came to church and is glad we finally made it. There is no need to work up a spirit that would invite Jesus to join us. He’s already here, as host, and we are the ones responding.

  2. Because God was here first, God speaks first. This is why the Ministry of the Word is such an important part of a Presbyterian service. Priority is placed not only on reading the Word but expounding upon it for understanding and for transformation. We believe not only that the Scripture is the Word of God, but that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God (2nd Helvetic, BOC 5.004). Shocking, I know, but this is why it is not something to be proud of that “we don’t preach; we let people take away what they will . . . “

  3. Worship is a dialogue, requiring us to listen and to respond to God’s Word. This is why prayer is an indispensable part of worship in the Reformed Tradition. How rude it is to go for a self-gratifying experience when the One who has already spoken is waiting for us to address him in prayer? Can you imagine how the hosts who have invited us to dinner would feel if we came in the door, ignore them, and simply revel in the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen and the marvelous experience of moving about taking this hors d’oeuvre or that book off their shelf, and then sit to eat without conversation at their table?

Yes, there are more elements to Reformed Worship, such as prayers of intercession, a commissioning to service, and an offering (see Directory for Worship, W-2.000). Your pastor did not make it up that an offering is required (and the reason is that Christians do not come to the Table empty-handed, but rather bring a sign of our gratitude for having been invited.)

So, was Presbytery’s worship even worship? No, unless you considered it worship of self, in which case it was idolatrous worship. Was Presbytery’s worship Reformed? No, because it did not address God, proclaim God’s Word, intercede for others in prayer, or commission us for service. Was the sacrament administered faithfully? I have to say, No, because it was not proclaimed or placed in a context for its proper interpretation.

How can we heal from such a debacle? How can we “unlearn” the unchristian and unreformed aspects of this gathering? How can we protect the children who were present from the spiritual error they witnessed? How can we not repeat the same mistake? And what is a person like me to do, if and when I ever choose to join in presbytery worship again . . . I do not know. But I understand why people vow never to come back to worship at presbytery meetings.

Lest one thinks that idolatrous worship was a problem only eons ago, as illustrated in yesterday’s post, even today within the PC(USA) it is possible to find events promoted as worship experiences that are anything but. A case in point: the after-dinner “worship” on the agenda of San Francisco Presbytery’s regular meeting of September 9. The “Order of Worship” handed out to us as we entered the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland consisted of the following elements: a call to worship, opening song, Scripture exploration, Communion & Community Prayer, Announcements, Closing Song, and Benediction. The experience unfolded in this manner:

Call to Worship
In the introduction to the service, the Rev. Jeff Cheifetz, a teaching elder of The Sanctuary for the Arts new worshipping community (one of the 1001 New Worshipping Communities sponsored by the denomination), welcomed the worship team: Amy Diane Shoemaker (a spiritual director and InterPlay practitioner) and primary musician Soyinka Rahim. As the African drums (played by two Caucasian TEs) began their rhythms, Ms. Shoemaker led the presbytery in a warm-up of sorts, using practices of InterPlay to “unlock the wisdom of your body.” People were encouraged to move about playfully and demonstratively, in dance steps, large arm motions, and self-hugs.

Opening Song:
“Wiggle and Grow” was led by Ms. Rahim. The words, printed in the bulletin:

Love has the power to conjure up your light
Wrong or right, good or bad, love will make it right.
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization
‘Cause we’re fragile as the baby roots that hold the earth
Wiggle and grow, wiggle and grow
Meditation, affirmation, visualization     [Copyright 2014, Soyinka Rahim]

Scripture Exploration
The theme verse was, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13), chosen because it was the theme verse of the 2014 General Assembly. Mr. Cheifetz explained that at The Sanctuary for the Arts they do not preach, but offer a verse of Scripture experientially so that the participants can take it in and use it any way they want to. In the Presbytery context, this unfolded as an invitation to accompany many repetitions of the verse with our own body movements.

Communion & Community Prayer
The next segment of the service was an invitation to participate in a variety of options, which included the sacrament of communion, more InterPlay, or writing a prayer or wish on butcher papers at stations around the Sanctuary. No prayer was offered. The words of institution were uttered in their briefest form: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He took the cup also, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24b-25). Then the drumbeat resumed and people milled about the sanctuary toward their chosen activity. Ms. Rahim repeatedly sang the lyrics, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum . . .”

Announcements
I don’t recall any, though, in my emotional state, I may not have been listening by then. I think there might have been an offering.

Closing Song
A reprise of “Wiggle and Grow”]

Benediction
I do not remember the content of the closing, if there was one . . .

Think about this for a few minutes, and then compare your list of objections to mine:

  • The experience was centered on “ourselves” rather than God, who was never acknowledged or addressed in prayer. It came very close to self-worship.

  • The narration referred to our energy coming from the earth, a pagan concept if I ever heard one. I expect this language from my Buddhist-inspired personal trainer, but not from a Reformed Worship leader.

  • The song we were invited to sing, “Wiggle and Grow,” made no sense and had no worship value whatsoever.

  • The Scripture exploration was nothing more than a cheap imitation of Lectio Divina lost in a self-referential wilderness.

  • The meaning and richness of communion was diminished as one option among many. There was no ministry of the Word accompanying it, no prayer of Invitation or of Thanksgiving, nor the Lord’s Prayer; and to sing “Yum, Yum, Yum” during the distribution just rendered me speechless and offended. I could not go forward for the sacrament.

The experience was far worse than a waste of time; it conveyed a false gospel. Whether it was an anomaly or an indication of things to come, I felt betrayed by my colleagues, who seem to have jettisoned anything remotely “Reformed” or even “Christian” in designing this service. If this is where “1001 New Worshipping Communities” is going, then the PC(USA) is going to lose its biblical moorings faster than even I have predicted.

I sent a letter of complaint to our executive presbyter ten days ago, and have not received a response.

So many Scriptures come to mind as I reflect on this experience, including Isaiah 55:6-9, Job 38-39 and 1 Corinthians 11:27. With tomorrow’s post, I will try to use this as a teachable moment and review the elements of Reformed Worship and why they are important to respect, enact, and use to order our community life.

 

I was going to begin today’s blog with a reflection on worship wars as they emerge in Deuteronomy, the book of the Bible I am reading as part of my daily discipline. I got as far as chapter 4:1-20 and realized I had to go back to the time and events of the Exodus. Deuteronomy is the “fifth book of Moses,” and it starts out with the Israelites poised on the threshold of the promised land (Canaan). Moses is recounting their history and the instructions that had been given to them by God on Mount Sinai (referred to here as “Horeb” [Deuteronomy 4:10]. He warned them not to repeat the sins of the past, fashioning idols and worshipping them instead of the Lord.

One of the most colorful examples of the Hebrews caught worshipping an idol is recounted in Exodus 32. You’ll remember the story: Moses had left Aaron in charge of the people while Moses hiked to the top of Mount Sinai. There God gave him the Ten Commandments and etched them on two tablets of stone. Meanwhile, the people in the plain below were getting antsy because Moses had been gone for forty days and they assumed he had ditched them. They gave up waiting for him and decided to take matters into their own hands. With contributions of gold from the Israelite throng, Aaron himself molded a calf and they all began to dance and make sacrifices around it in pagan worship. As Moses headed down the mountain, he heard the ruckus and realized the horror of what was happening. He was so angry he threw down the stone tablets, ground the golden calf to dust, mixed it with water, made the people drink it, and then demanded an explanation. Aaron, uh, did not step up at this point, instead claiming that the people had insisted on doing something, so they gathered some gold which he threw it into the fire, “and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24). Yeah, right.

The first three commandments require God’s people to revere his name, worship him alone, and refrain from using images (e.g. carved, cast, or drawn) to depict the Almighty and Eternal Lord. In particular, God forbid them to worship any element of creation:

Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them . . . (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).

Unfortunately, in the developments through the Old Testament, the Israelites’ wayward eyes and stiff necks would consistently get them in trouble, and worshipping things was usually at the center of it all.

This is no quaint story of a bygone era. It seems embedded in human nature to go after other gods, to shape them in our image or in the image of something we admire or to which we attribute power. In today’s quasi-spiritual jargon (you know, “spiritual but not religious”), it is not uncommon to hear people refer to “a higher power” as the object of their affection. Higher, perhaps, than myself, but not as high as YHWH God! God has no patience with our reliance, as shaky as it is, on powers other than himself, and in fact has tried to get the message across through the millennia:

            Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
                        and they cannot speak;
            they have to be carried,
                        for they cannot walk.
            Do not be afraid of them,
                        for they cannot do evil,
                        nor is it in them to do good. (Jeremiah 10:5)

God claims to be “the Most High” God, the highest power and the only one worthy of our praise, adoration, and worship. In fact, God is the sole audience to our worship. He is not a bystander, not a cheering section, not one praising us. God is the One and only around whom our affection gathers, to whom we give praise, and for whom we live. Period.

Tomorrow: An example of worship gone bad.

In earlier posts, found here and here, I shared a couple of methods for generating discussion on topics needing theological reflection. I used 4-MAT and Case Studies often in the Fuller Seminary classes I taught. Versions of both have been helpful in the church Sunday school context, but I fell upon a less formal approach that got excellent traction in the last church I served.

Years ago, I started an adult Sunday school class we called “Hot Off the Press.” The idea was to engage in discussion of world and national events from a faith perspective. My agenda was to model and teach “ordinary” Christians how to think, in a world that often values feelings more than rationality. Each week I brought a news story that begged for a Christian response. We read it together, and brainstormed the issues it raised. We then considered what God might say about the situation and what actions we might take in response. Among the many subjects we tackled, we talked about the Palestinian/Israeli question (which took more than one class session), human cloning, religion in political life, parenting issues, just war, and “What would Jesus drive?” (during a light news week).

My favorite discussion revolved around the case of a young boy attending a church nursery school, whose mother was a lap dancer or stripper at a local club. The 4-year-old boy was expelled from the school three weeks before classes ended in June, because his mother’s occupation was discovered by a church member browsing the web.

Did we have fun with that one!

Who was it that said, “Preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”? This is what we tried to do, and the engagement of faith with real life stretched us. I was encouraged by the development of these folks, who over two years’ time revealed fewer unsubstantiated biases, asked better questions, turned to the Bible appropriately, and loved each other better.

Christian Scharen, pastor friend and facilitator of a Yale study group called Faith as a Way of Life, visited my HOTP class and made the following report:

Mary ministers to a diverse crowd including typical suburban families and longtime Concord residents, faith seekers and lifelong Presbyterians Her driving goal as a pastor is to learn how to ask the right questions to help people grow in faith and to align themselves with the life of Christ. One key way she has done this is through a long-term coaching effort that takes place during “Hot [O]ff the Press” . . . The Sunday I visited, the news article was about the street protests over treatment of immigrants in France. The article, from a local newspaper, presented multiple voices, including leaders in the immigrant communities and various French politicians and government officials. We first needed to sort out as best we could what facts could be known. Mary pushed hard to separate our opinion and bias such as “The French have a sense of nationalism rooted in racial purity” and discern the actual shape of the circumstance. The interaction of the twenty-five or so participants was lively and responsive to her prodding. They clearly knew the drill, policing each other as much as Mary did regarding the effort to sketch a factual basis for the discussion. Then Mary introduced several Scripture passages, including passages from Deuteronomy on treatment of the “alien” and Galatians 3:28 regarding oneness in Christ. Mary’s clarity about Scripture’s importance for considering the issue did not collapse into any direct policy recommendations; rather, it gave way to a vigorous conversation about the complexity of law, immigration, and issues California faces that are similar to the French case.

Practice thinking about faith in relation to immigration in France teaches that faith matters in all spheres of life. Such guided conversation . . . trains Christians how to see and act with eyes and legs of faith rather than be guided by the many other orienting forces in their lives.

—Christian Scharen, Faith as a Way of Life (2008, Eerdmans), 92-93. Used with permission of the author.

As we model for others what it looks like to be a World Christian, full of compassion within the realm of Christ’s grace and truth, we need to be equipped for discussion around sensitive topics. Perhaps one of the models I have shared here at Bringing the Word to Life spurs you on to some purposeful, constructive reflection upon world events. It might even help you and yours enter into some of the controversial subjects facing the Presbyterian tribe these days. We must not lose heart, lose feeling, or withdraw our interest from the news that swirls around us. Let us hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, and stay engaged long enough to gain a sense from Jesus our Redeemer of how we can be a redemptive presence.

For further information about implementing Hot Off the Press in your church family, please see “Hot Off the Press” under Pages in the right hand column of my home page.

Information Overload

September 23, 2014

One of the 21st century’s greatest blessings is also its greatest curse. I’m speaking of information technology that has given us the Internet, the World Wide Web, not to mention social networking. It used to be that one found out what was happening in the world by radio broadcast or newspaper. As an aside, one of my all-time favorite museums is the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (next door to the Canadian embassy). Worth the price of admission is the amazing collection on Level 5 called the News Corporation News History Gallery. This display covers more than 500 years of news history, showcasing almost 400 newspaper front pages dating back to the 1500s. Fascinating!

For centuries, because of the limitations of transportation, transmission, and imaging, people got their news slowly and locally. It was simply not possible to know what was going on unless a written text was carried by a messenger. For this reason, there was a lot of room for rumor, miscommunication, and apathy because news was not delivered in a timely fashion.

Need I describe the situation now? Any citizen of the earth who has an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, for instance, can write an article and/or take a picture, and transmit both to anyone else around the world who has the same gadgets. It is very hard to keep a secret these days, even in North Korea, (I think) the most severely restricted nation for Internet access in the world. Not only does the Internet reach the world, it does so almost instantaneously.

The blessing of this reality is that the world can find out right away when atrocities are perpetrated so that world citizens can be moved to action. It makes me wonder if the Nazi death camps could have sustained operation for as long as they did if one key person had detected their existence and posted a picture for the world to see. Currently, at least we know to some degree the evil ISIS is doing in Syria/Iraq, the kidnappings Boko Haram is arrogantly pursuing in Nigeria, the threat of a smoldering volcano in Iceland, the spread of the Ebola tragedy in West Africa, and the extent of damage to Baja California by Hurricane Odile. Whereas in 1976 it took a personal messenger from Antigua, Guatemala, to bring first-hand news of that country’s terrible earthquake in order to enlist our relief efforts, now within minutes such a disaster is broadcast by satellite all over the world, enabling money, supplies, and aid workers to go to work as soon as transportation can be organized.

The curse of knowing this much about what is going on is the burden such knowledge puts on our minds and hearts: the burden of sadness, the burden of responsibility, the burden of fear or mistrust or anger or outrage. [I must interject here that it has also activated a global prayer response, which we know “avails much.”] But sometimes, even watching the evening news—which generally dispenses a very America-centric viewpoint on world events in chewable bites—can be exposure to “too much information!” Not only do I ask, “What is happening?” but “Why is this happening?” and most difficult of all, “What am I supposed to do with this knowledge?” It’s enough to render a writer wordless, which it did for me this summer. Where does one start? As I think Charlie Brown used to say, “No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.” I suspect that TMI in the news department may be desensitizing us, diluting our sense of responsibility, or building up mental callouses so that the fact we have no categories for some of these atrocities doesn’t even bother us.

But if we are to be responsible world citizens, specifically World Christians, what are we to do with the knowledge we can access at the click of a button? This question opens a can of worms, I know, leading to discussions I am not competent to moderate: What is the nature of journalism and how does it relate to social networking? How can we know what is true vs. what is manipulated by journalistic PhotoShop? When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” did he mean a Nigerian is my neighbor? [My list of questions is long . . . ]

If my mission is Bringing the Word to Life, then part of my call is to reflect upon Life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in light of God’s Word. I’d like to write more about this tomorrow, but it involves being attentive to world news and anchored in the Scriptures, while finding a bridge between the two. Most people are experiencing the kind of life that cries out for a word of hope, purpose, or blessing. Unfortunately, there are some also who are evil in their intent, destructive in their actions, and very powerful in earthly terms. We cannot go down the road to perdition with them, but we can keep erecting signposts in the right direction. That, too, is bringing the Word to life.

At the very least, the news invites me to consider how things could be different if Christ’s disciples realized their potential for turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6), not by military force or coercion, by remaining steadfastly loyal to Jesus Christ. If we follow in his footsteps by demonstrating the grace and truth of God’s Kingdom, serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), and embodying the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), we might—slowly and locally—make a world of difference.

 

Unspeakable Sadness

September 22, 2014

Going back to my original list of reasons for not blogging this summer, today I address the experience of sadness. Several things piled on over time and rendered me still before God, downcast in spirit:

• my mother’s death after a sudden and short illness, in early April
• the developing news of my friend Steve Hayner’s pancreatic cancer
• actions of General Assembly, particularly regarding same-sex marriage
• the beheading of innocents at the hands of ISIS
• the escalating death toll due to Ebola in West Africa
• devastating wildfires in California, at or near some of my favorite places on earth
• the word “permanent” uttered by one of my doctors in reference to my breathing difficulties

I suppose everybody feels sadness in unique ways. For me, it starts in the sternum as an ache and rises to the throat, triggering tears and moaning. Such a feeling of heaviness comes with a sense of loss, a loss to me or a loss to humanity. It is often accompanied by helplessness, because sadness overwhelms after the checklist of “what can I do to fix this?” is exhausted.

Sadness is certainly not new to the human experience. It seems every generation has its own sad history to deal with. I think of Joe Rantz of The Boys in the Boat fame, whose family packed up the household and drove off leaving 15-year-old Joe to fend for himself. What possible reaction can a reader have to such callous abandonment! Sadness, and perhaps anger, hardly do justice to the loss experienced under such conditions.

On the other hand, sadness apart from outrage can be a powerful emotion of its own. Consider the progression of the five stages of grief: upon experiencing a loss, a person goes through denial, anger, and bargaining before coming to depression, or the experience of pure sadness. When the full reality of a loss makes its way into our consciousness, after we protest loudly (to God or neighbor), and try to work out some alternative “solution,” when all of that works its way through our system, we finally arrive at a point at which we can only say, “It is sad. It is so sad.” This is the kind of sadness that silences a person. Job’s friends would have done much better ministry if they had just sat with him on the heap of ashes and bore the burden with him (Job 13:4f).

I think it is possible for a person to be very sad without becoming depressed, but if sadness hovers for a prolonged period one should be alert to the possibility that depression is setting in. In that case, get help! It happens! Tell somebody about it; talk it through!

Even our Savior waded in deep waters of sadness from time to time:

“Jesus wept,” “greatly disturbed and moved” by the show of grief at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:35). He entered into the community’s grief and felt his own fully. This deeply emotional moment was not a sign of weakness but recognition of a friend’s death and sorrow for paradise lost. I can just hear the One who was present for the Creation protesting, “This is not the way it was supposed to be!” And yet, right at this moment, even Jesus was silent.

Sadness stops speech, but it does not necessarily stop action. In his grief, Jesus may have embraced the words of the Psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b). And in that anticipated joy, Jesus realized his life-bringing purpose and called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” For us, the action may be wordless, in the form of a hug or a card sent in the mail. Simply by engaging sadness in its most genuine form, we move through it. We have to move through it—thoughtfully, prayerfully, thoroughly—and find what we can find on the other side of it.

For people of the Christian faith, the reality and promise of resurrection goes a long way toward lifting the heaviness of sadness. We can at least become functional again. Some say their sadness never leaves them, and it may not; but eventually the One who is sad with us says, “Okay, my dear one, I am carrying this one with you, but it’s time to re-engage with the world around you.” Anyone who has lost a spouse or a child knows this. The pain is unspeakable, as is the sadness; but sometimes “exercise” helps in the meantime.

For Jesus, sorting out his situation in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was “bargaining” just one last time: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). When the answer was “No, I want you to walk through the valley of death as we agreed to do,” Jesus summoned the courage available in his being to submit to the Father and face the wayward earthly authorities according to God’s plan. Yes, of course, it led to his death. Our sadness, at a much smaller level, often involves some kind of death, too: the death of a dream, of a home, of a relationship, of a plan. With that death (or loss) comes grief; after the stillness and silence of a first response, we are encouraged by the example of our Savior to exercise our faith, walk in the light, and do our duty.

For me, now, that exercise is writing. Yes, the unspeakable must now be spoken. And in the speaking, the sadness loses some of its power to devastate and gains some power to point us to the morning, and the One who has promised:

[“H]e will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

 

 

I celebrated a milestone of sorts today, the last session of a pulmonary rehabilitation class I have been taking to learn how to breathe and manage my air. A group of twelve has met for a total of 36 hours over these last seven weeks, instructed by respiratory therapists, physical therapists, nutritionists, pharmacists, psychotherapists, and doctors. We have been supervised in the gym for a minimum of 1½ hours of tailor-made exercises each class day, and we marked our progress. We are now considered “educated patients” who have learned how to observe our health status and to know when to call the doctor.The experience is definitely a confidence booster, especially for the folks who are oxygen dependent and have been sedentary for fear of losing their breath.

There is a shortage of such programs in the San Francisco Bay Area, a long waiting list to get into the program, and chronic underfunding. It’s not a moneymaker for the hospital system, and yet it is one of the most important and necessary programs we have for reducing hospitalizations and maintaining good health. For all of these reasons, I have felt privileged to be a part of this group, getting to know eleven other individuals who are worse off than I am, celebrating incremental progress, and spurring one another on.

And now it is on to “maintenance,” the follow-up commitment to sustain the exercising six days a week in order to keep what we have gained. I don’t expect this to be a mental hurdle for me, since I was in much better condition than most going into it and had maintained an exercise habit in my BC days. I have a gym membership and a terrific trainer who holds me accountable and draws safe parameters for my exercise, so I am not worried.

It strikes me that this scenario is much like the attention we ought to be giving to our spiritual conditioning. Think about it: the human state without spiritual exercise is weak, vulnerable, prone to falls, and otherwise less-than-healthy. But the church—for all her flaws and underfunding—is the place where God’s people gather for mutual accountability, strengthening, and encouragement in the faith. The Holy Spirit is our instructor, using pastors and teachers and other saints to convey the realities, the temptations, and the help that will enable us to grow strong in the Lord.

The Christian Community gathers in worship to be instructed by preaching, or we meet in small groups around God’s Word. We learn about God, we become acquainted with Jesus, we begin to trust the Savior and believe his diagnosis of our condition. We learn how to share the love of Jesus Christ with one another. And then he sends us home with a set of exercises to do every day, because it is vital for our spiritual survival that we breathe properly (Genesis 2:7) and gain strength.

We need this strength to keep us from falling. We need confidence and courage for the uneven pavement of our lives. We need the breath of life for the uphill battles ahead. We need the Lord’s steady hand, held in conversational prayer, to keep us from wandering. We need periodic hearing checks, so when we must discern and know the Lord’s word on something, we recognize his voice and hear it even at a whisper. This all takes practice, and repetition, and perseverance even on the “bad air days.”

No matter how easy we think our life is at the present time, there is still one contest in each of us, regardless of our age, and that is our final assignment this side of heaven to die well and to die in the Lord. There may be other challenges before that one, but we know someday—in pain or shortness of breath—we are going to be tempted to doubt the Lord’s Word and let go of any sense of consolation or safety in Christ. I call it a contest because our opponent (you know what I am talking about) would love to see us defeated, hopeless, and dead (1 Peter 5:8f). But we know the evil one is defeated and powerless against God’s almighty hand (Hebrews 2:14f; Revelation 20:10), so part of our spiritual exercise is to be reminded daily that God is strong and good and loving us. My prayer, for the day of challenge, is that we would have enough strength left to laugh at doubt and spiritual foolishness and cling more tightly to the One who will carry us over the threshold.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen! (Jude 24)

Bible Reading Plans

September 18, 2014

The best of intentions languish without a plan. My goal is very simple: to read a little bit of Scripture every day and keep acquainted with the whole counsel of God.  To this end, I offer the following recommendations among the many possibilities available these days. All links have been checked today so these are good to go. I start, however, with my favorite because it was devised by one of my favorite people, Dr. Dale Bruner, formerly of Whitworth University and now retired and writing commentaries in Pasadena, California. He sketched this reading plan out on a white-board one day, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Dr. Dale Bruner’s Two Year Reading Plan
Reading schedule covers entire Bible in two years (Genesis & NT twice, Psalms monthly), reading Monday through Saturday: NT Reading in the morning, five psalms at lunch time,* OT Reading in the evening. Sunday: A chapter from Genesis each week

09.17.19 Bruner Reading Plan cropped* On each date of the month, read the five psalms for the day in the following pattern:09.17.19 Bruner Psalms cropped

 

 

 

 

Other Personalized Reading Plans

My Bible Plans
http://www.mybibleplans.com/
You customize the plan: pick the segment of the Scriptures you want to read, in how many days, starting when; and it maps out the schedule. You can print out the schedule, or sign up to have it delivered by email each day. Uses the English Standard Version of the Bible.

M’Cheyne Bible Readings
http://www.edginet.org/mcheyne/
Four chapters each day, covering the entire Bible in one year. Two of these daily readings are intended for family reading, the other two “secret” (meaning “private; individual”). Various delivery formats available.

Blue Letter Bible
http://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/
Takes you step by step through the process of registering for a personalized Bible reading plan. You can choose the translation you want to read, your general time-table (one or two years), and the layout: historically chronological, blended OT and NT, canonical (the order in which the books appear in the Bible), etc. For starters, I recommend the 1-year plan at http://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/PDF/1Yr_OTNTPlan.pdf or the 2-year plan at http://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/PDF/2Yr_OTNTPlan.pdf

Scripture Awakening—The Bible in 90 Days
http://scriptureawakening.com/b90/
This is a purchased guide for reading the entire Bible in three months. There are “best practices” for use of the material in small groups, church-wide reading commitments, etc. The claim is that it only takes up to 60 minutes of reading a day to cover Genesis to Revelation in 90 days!

Bible Gateway
https://www.biblegateway.com/reading-plans/?version=NIV
Various options for a daily email, which includes the full text of the day’s reading. The Daily Plans all start on January 1, but there are various options to choose from, such as “The Gospels in 40 Days.”

Ligonier Ministries Bible Reading Chart
http://visualunit.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/bible_reading.pdf
Stick this downloadable printout into your Bible and check off Book and Chapter as you read. Totally flexible.

Since we’re in September, I have decided to print out the Ligonier reading chart and start chipping away, generally along the lines of of a customized plan from My Bible Plans. Depending on how it is going, on January 1 I may start at the beginning with Bruner’s Plan . . . So, let’s see how this goes! What I do believe is this:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)