In anticipation of a stellar 80° day, Andy and I headed out Saturday morning to explore the John Muir Historic Site. We toured a visitor’s center and the Martinez home where the famous “wilderness tramp” John Muir lived and raised a family for 24 years.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 to strict Presbyterian parents, who immigrated to Wisconsin when John was still a boy. He showed promise as an inventor, an interest that motivated him to study at university. But before graduating—he dropped out in 1863—he made a tour on foot of Iowa, Illinois, and Canada and acquired a taste for the wilderness.

Later at age 29, employed by an Indianapolis carriage parts manufacturer, a factory mishap changed his life forever. A metal file broke in his hand, and a piece of it jabbed his right eye, blinding him. A doctor bandaged the wound and prescribed quiet rest in a dark room for four weeks.

During this recovery period, Muir began to evaluate his life and loves, and realized that there was a lot of world he wanted to see. He set out to discover the riches and lessons nature could teach him, first with a 1000-mile walk to Florida and then to California where he fell in love with what we now call Yosemite Valley. He lived in the High Sierra, tending sheep or operating a sawmill, but mostly exploring, for four continuous years. During this time, he began to journal his findings and to publish magazine articles extolling the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite. His writings drew attention to its vast natural resources, the necessity of its preservation, and his own exploits off the grid.

Muir’s remarkable story goes on, but I want to reflect on the fact that a brilliant man went off the grid at least twice: from 1863 to 1866 and from 1869 through 1873. In both instances, he came back refreshed and resolved to secure and preserve natural wonders. His most potent methods were to write about his wilderness observations and experiences and to relate to influential people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Teddy Roosevelt. He is known as the Father of the National Park System and was the first president of the Sierra Club.

Four years off the grid in Yosemite, but writing and taking notes, became the seedbed for great ideas and a significant impact on American life. As I pondered the correlation between social withdrawal and public impact, I realized that Muir’s life runs somewhat in parallel to the Apostle Paul and to Jesus.

The Apostle Paul was confronted by the risen Christ (Acts 9) and brought into Damascus to be instructed by Ananias. After this dramatic conversion, he withdrew from public life for at least three years. When he emerged from this quiet learning period, he itinerated all over the Mediterranean region to proclaim the gospel, establish churches, and write letters comprising a good part of the New Testament.

Jesus lived an obscure life for thirty years before changing the water into wine in Cana and becoming a locally known figure. After his baptism, he was sent by God’s Spirit into the wilderness for forty days. He returned to civilization and began calling disciples to himself and launching his ministry. His public life was punctuated by forays to quiet places for contemplation. His creative “product,” unlike Muir and Paul’s writings, was relationships and public teaching. He never wrote a book, leaving that task to the four gospel writers, but established his earthly legacy through the development of many disciples as preachers, teachers, and church planters.

For several years, based on what I still think was “a word from the Lord,” I expected that my contribution as a Christian leader to the church would be more prominent and influential than it has turned out to be. What form that leadership would have taken was never fully revealed, though I felt I was inching closer a couple of times. I felt the Lord preparing me for a leadership role of some impact.

But like Jesus’ Messiah-ship, which turned out looking a lot different than Jewish leaders of his day expected, the path God set for me has involved hardship and ridicule and failure (especially the 2012 PCUSA legal defeats that led to the sea change in that denomination). It has included life-threatening illness that took me out of full-time work, and academic forces beyond my control that truncated a future as a seminary teacher. These setbacks and redirections have channeled my energies into part-time hospital chaplaincy and into writing a memoir about my experiences. It is not easy for me to say this: I was disappointed and even shaken that I misunderstood God’s appointment.

Nevertheless I affirm that God knows what he is doing with my life. I am at peace now with the call to live as faithfully and excellently as I can within my present context and to remain open to his continued direction. Power and influence take many forms, some of which I may not actually want anymore. But writing something true, worthy, and thought-provoking may become my means of leading people to Jesus’ calling in their lives. As my dad used to say, “The one who has the pen has the power” (Naegeli’s Law #3).

The stories I have shared today—of John Muir, the Apostle Paul, and our Savior Jesus Christ—remind me that good things come out of quiet obscurity. I can expect to thrive and be joyful and do some good as long as I stay closely in tune with the one singing the melody in my life. For now, that means (in part) transcribing the music I hear onto the written page, from which others perhaps can sing the lead and be heard.

 

 

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In the realm of American citizenship, a few things have tweaked my “blog spot” this week. The jury duty issue remains unresolved, and won’t be cleared up until at least next Tuesday. But as I have been thinking about my role as a citizen, and a Christian one at that, I have uncovered some reasons for disillusionment with our constitutional democracy. Don’t get all excited reading that statement: I am not critical of our system of government in theory, but disillusionment overshadows my optimism in practice. Some specific indicators:

  1. Many citizens show amazing enthusiasm for the privileges of American life, its constitutional protections, and its success over 238 years, but far too many of those same people complain bitterly about the responsibilities: taxes, jury duty, voting, and advocating for the common good.

  2. Party politics has become so polarized that constructive partnership to solve common problems seems rare. Unfortunately, the two dominant parties have lost common ground over the last few decades, according to the Pew Research Center. A vote cast for one party or the other (creating a majority in Congress, for example) has come to mean that middle-of-the-road issues are not going to be addressed. So few seem willing to move toward the middle of the political spectrum to get those things done.

  3. This year the deceptive ad campaigns for various propositions on the California ballot have already started. I say ‘deceptive’ because a columnist in our local paper goes through the broadcast ads with a fine-tooth comb to check facts. Honestly, the outdated, misconstrued, and accusatory content of these ads is just appalling. But people believe them, and vote accordingly.

  4. Money drives everything, and, in particular, money talks a lot louder than constructive ideas for solving problems. I find this sad and frustrating. Lots and lots of money is required to keep those stupid ads on the radio, TV, and in my mailbox. But when you look at a flyer, for instance, there is not one shred of actual content you can evaluate in order to make an informed decision. What these ads are really doing is saying, “Some of us with some money are mad as heck about [this or that] and for this reason we want you to vote our way.” Great.

  5. Freedom, one of the most highly valued American dreams, does not naturally support national unity. If you’ve got 316 million people in this country all jockeying to get their way, on their terms, you’ve got 316 million people who want to be the center of the universe. Think about it: if I have an absolute right to privacy (one form of “freedom”), for instance, I can create my own little island of self-fulfilling hedonism and close the door to responsibility for fellow citizens. In another context, if you— my CEO, my pastor, my representative, my professor—do not adopt and celebrate my ideas, I can make sure you lose your job and are shamed into obscurity. In one fell swoop, supposedly in the name of freedom many peoples’ freedoms (free speech, free expression of religion, freedom of assembly, etc.) are being intimidated into silence and inaction, dividing the nation and making unity impossible.

  6. Tolerance, demonstrated brilliantly by our forebears in American history, has been reduced to a particular definition of what constitutes tolerance. And great intolerance is shown to those who believe and act differently that that definition allows. Two hundred years ago, tolerance was demonstrated by respect for an opposing point of view even as one argued against it. A vigorous debate was seen as good for problem solving and tension relief, but in the end compromises were made for the common good so that unity could be achieved. In general, I would say that Americans have become very intolerant, unable to conduct civil debate, and blind to common causes. It is only “what’s in it for me.”

You’ve heard a recurring theme in this piece, I hope, of common ground and the common good. I’m going to have to dig up the quotation, but one of the recent popes has said that no political/economic system has any potential unless God is recognized as the ultimate authority under which our laws and practices are ordered. So my conclusion is that the American problem is fundamentally a spiritual problem. As long as human beings must rule their own universe, they are going to be greedy, demanding, and unreasonable people. But when people submit to God, they get practiced at looking outward beyond the realm of self-satisfaction and into the public square where they can be champions of the common good. The unity I believe we used to possess, but have lost, is made possible not by everybody adopting the same specific doctrine but by everybody acknowledging a real dependence upon God, who is good and just and strong and able to help them steward the nation.

 

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.

 

We Americans, from a cultural point of view, cherish the concept of freedom so dearly that we sometimes resist the inclinations of big government. A national ID card, for instance, cannot get traction here in the States. Every tenth year we hear about folks who desire not to be counted in the census. And now that the NSA’s data-tracking mission has been unveiled, people are even more paranoid about their personal information. Every time I go to a new medical office, the registration form asks for my social security number, which I decline to give. [They are legally obligated to demonstrate why it is necessary for them to have it, and since they do not seem to have a good reason, I’d rather keep it to myself, thank you very much!] I think there is more here than rugged individualism; I believe that people desire to retain some sense of control over their lives and don’t necessarily think more government intrusion is going to help them in the long run.

Today’s meditation, for the fifth day of Christmas, revolves around another government intrusion at the direction of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. He issued a decree some time around 4 BC that everyone in his world was to be “registered.” The presumption is that the emperor was getting ready to extract new taxes and needed to identify his tax base. In Israel, the decree was organized in a tribal kind of way: each head-of-household was required to go back to his or her ancestral home village for the census. The family may have meandered through history into different geographic locations, but to be a member of the clan of David, for instance, meant returning to Bethlehem to be counted.

Joseph, now engaged to Mary who was heavily pregnant, lived in Nazareth but identified “home” as Bethlehem. Hence the uncomfortable journey south, a distance of perhaps eighty miles, probably accomplished in a caravan moving about twenty miles a day. But at the end of the road, Joseph and Mary were on their own looking for lodging in a city bursting at the seams.

Meanwhile, it was understood from the Old Testament that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem: 

            But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
                        who are one of the little clans of Judah,
            from you shall come forth for me
                        one who is to rule in Israel,
            whose origin is from of old,
                        from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

We have no indication from Luke’s text that Joseph and Mary had connected dots and seen their migration to Bethlehem as anything but fulfillment of a civic duty. And yet, we readers can’t help but see the connection in retrospect, which many years later slowly dawned on Jesus’ contemporaries: “Has not the Scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:42). All this is to say, God has used the movements of history, the whims of despots, and even geography to accomplish his will. In this case, what would move this couple, at such an inconvenient time, to travel to a little town and give birth in a strange place? It wasn’t going to be their idea, right? It took an act of a godless emperor to make it happen.

When we get frustrated with circumstances that seem out of our control, one way of looking at them is to see how God moved us into new places we never would have travelled otherwise. For me, the idea entering the world of cancer and its treatment was the farthest from my mind and dead last on my bucket list. If God had a mission for me in this world, he would have to get me here; and he did. All that is required of me in this new location is to keep my eyes on the Lord, follow the path despite the discomforts, and live into my Spirit-empowered commitment to represent Jesus wherever I am at the moment. The bigger scheme of things is in God’s hands, but I can rest assured that I am in the right place at the right time to do the right thing for the right reasons. I am free, to a certain degree, to make choices in this new place; but being here is not optional and I, American or not, have to get over the protest that God has intruded in my life. What a laugh, to think this is my life anyway. May the Lord continue to help me see my existence as a “living sacrifice” offered in worship to my Creator and Lord every single day!

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

 

Living in Suspense

December 19, 2013

One of the pleasures of a quiet life, and the hours each day spent in the chemo chair, is reading a good recreational book. Right now I’m working on a legal thriller called Havana Requiem by Paul Goldstein. This tightly written novel by the Stanford author unfolds in Grisham style to reveal the rich tapestry of pre- and post-revolution Cuba, and particularly the music associated with it. Some of the “Aha” moments are discoveries of cultural significance (as opposed to “a body in the library,” although one gets that, too). All in all, it has me in suspense.

So you can imagine my consternation when, at p. 216, I turn the page to find I am back on p. 154! Flipping through, I realize an entire leaf of the book is defective, repeating pages of some time back, and missing entirely every even-numbered page of the book’s conclusion! The last time anything like this happened to me was when I purchased a new Bible, only to discover the book of Ecclesiastes and the first five chapters of Isaiah were missing. Now I am really in suspense and scrambling for a quick fix.

But hold on a moment; this mildly frustrating experience invites me to take a look at the suspenseful life I am leading this season. Many of my readers, I know, have a more seasonal type of anticipation, along the lines of “What will Santa bring me (or my kids) this year?” But I am dealing with a much bigger question: “How successful will my cancer treatment be? Which choice am I to make next week between two mutually exclusive approaches to slaying the Beast? When am I going to be able to go back to work?”

My feelings are nothing new. The people of God have lived in suspense almost from the very beginning of time. In the Garden of Eden, this suspense took the form of delightful anticipation of discovery amidst a wonderful creation. After the Fall, many other features of life became unknown, darker, and more threatening to our well-being. Abraham was held in suspense when God said, “Hey, Abe, come with me to a land I will show you,” and Abe followed without knowing where he was going. We certainly see the excitement and suspense of the Israelites out-running their Egyptian pursuers across the divided Red Sea, and then the forty years of wandering in the desert, wondering what the land of milk and honey looked like. As the New Testament opens, we see in Simeon and Anna the longing for the Savior, and watch their faces as they greet Mary and her baby Jesus, “Ah, now your servant can depart in peace”—suspense relieved! The people of God are in suspense—or perhaps we can call this faith—because they live hoping to see the mighty hand of God at work. And ultimately, we await the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the resolution of all that is incomplete, unfinished, and yet-to-be-redeemed.

What fuels our hope is the foundation God has already laid, demonstrating his benevolence and faithfulness on our behalf. For that, we need to turn back the pages and remember what God has done. Again, throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are commanded to tell their story over and over again, of the Exodus, of their forebears in faith, of the ordered life described in the Law of God. After Exile, the returning people led by Ezra and Nehemiah, in preparation for the labor of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, read the Law for days and teach one another what it means for their life together in the future. And we, in the long line of apostles and teachers and disciples of Christ, are called upon to read and reread the Scriptures, Jesus’ Word of life, to anchor our future in a faithful past history with God.

As I embark upon the next few days of investigation and decision-making regarding my future, I think God is reminding me to hold fast to parts of my story already known and experienced. My cancer chronicle over the last few weeks is helping me to remember how God has shown up in my treatment, the shower of blessings from friends, and the love and support of my family. Turning back the pages, I know that God has never left me, that he is carrying me, and that his people have my back even when I am too tired to pray. I know that God has power; he has held back serious side effects of treatment and kept me comfortable through chemo and radiation. He has kept his hand in the small of my back, guiding me, steering me out of trouble, and otherwise keeping me on his path toward healing. These are the truths I hold on to, even as I face the suspense of “What is going to happen next” right around the corner.

I may never know how Havana Requiem turns out, but I do know that my life is in God’s hands and that there is nothing to fear as I live out my story. There is something about the suspense itself that is exciting and wonderful, because the author of my story has written my name in the Book of Life.

Freedom in Confinement

December 16, 2013

The week’s news has been dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela and the celebrations of his life. His greatness is measured by the impact of his personal transformation on a nation sullied by apartheid. His vocal and powerful political advocacy prior to his incarceration was silenced by imprisonment, supposedly; but as we all know, his was a witness of presence in his absence. His body was in the dungeon, so to speak, but his will and his spirit escaped into the conscience of a country and the world.

The most remarkable feature of his life turned out to be what happened after he was released. He forgave his captors and reached across the great racial divide to unite a nation and form a new government. The trading in of his anger for reconciliation is the great work of personal transformation for which he will be known, and it took those decades in prison to accomplish.

His long walk to freedom reminds me of a devotional written by life-long Methodist missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones. He told the story of a man who had been imprisoned unjustly, who was finally released but embittered by the experience. Jones observed, “Sometimes it is easier to get a man out of the dungeon, than it is to get the dungeon out of the man.” What he was saying was, sometimes we confine ourselves in a dungeon of our own making, if we are unable or unwilling to let go of resentment or anger. Those and many other emotions can bind us more tightly than prison walls can!

In my case, I suppose the temptation would be to view my illness and fatigue as a prison preventing me from a carefree life doing what I love doing. For you, the prison might be a life in hyper-drive, leaving you no time for reflection or recreation. For someone else, the dungeon might be a dark hole of addiction. The point is, potentially we all have life circumstances or conditions that might, if we let them, imprison us. The challenge today is to look at those limitations in a different light.

We are helped in this endeavor by the observation in the biblical narrative of individuals who themselves were imprisoned.  In the Old Testament, we have Joseph locked up in Egypt (Genesis 37 and following). In the New Testament, Jesus himself is the finest illustration of one who simply could not be confined even to the grave! For the rest of us mere mortals, Paul and Silas offer a case in point. They were thrown into jail in Philippi because their preaching and the subsequent conversion of Philippian slaves and citizens ruffled enough feathers to induce the magistrates to arrest them for “disturbing the peace”:

The crowd joined in attacking [Paul and Silas], and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely.  Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  (Acts 16:22-25)

Notice that the two evangelists were beaten and chained, and yet there in the prison they were transported through worship into the presence of God. Their bodies were locked in the stocks, but their spirits soared because they were not confined. This beautifully illustrates the dynamic of “taking the dungeon out of the man.”

Paul and Silas inspire me to think differently about physical freedom and confinement, about the possibilities for meaningful “activity” even when limited to my chemo chair for more than five hours today. It helps, I acknowledge, that I have chosen this discipline of limited mobility for a time in order to be healed for full freedom later. I also recognize how easy it is for one’s essential identity to morph from “healthy and free” to “ill and limited,” so the challenge is to keep God’s vision for my life before me. At the very least, my heavenly citizenship allows me to enjoy full access to the throne of grace for the ministry of intercession, full reign in God’s Kingdom for the ministry of helping others with whom I have contact in this new context, full freedom to dream and imagine and write as God inspires me. This is dwelling in resurrection hope, following in the footsteps of our Savior and his saints. It is more than making lemonade out of life’s lemons, it is abiding in Jesus Christ and sharing his vision of “the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) even as he suffered. I would like to live in this kind of joyful emancipation today.

The study of history was never my strong suit in high school, and though I had a couple of world-renowned history professors at Stanford, the discipline did not capture my imagination. I was at the time much better suited as a mathematical sciences major (first) and ultimately music major. Problem sets and musical analyses were more my forte in these formative years. I’ve been on a remedial course ever since.

What turned me around was Church History in seminary. I took three courses: Early Church, Reformation History, and American Church History to fulfill my requirements. For the first time (with the possible exception of Music History in college), I could attach ancient events to my own life and see the relevance of history as something important to my life’s work. Through the lens of church history, I have been able to circle back and appreciate biblical history, political history, art history, and even music history.

It also helps to have lived through several decades of personal history. To this day I am an avid reader of the daily newspaper, a habit I started in grade school at the suggestion of my mother. This accumulation of knowledge and experience contributes to a long-view perspective on the shake-up we are now experiencing in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This week I would like to ponder the dynamics of dismissal from the PC(USA). There is a long view (version 1), and local view (San Francisco Presbytery), and another long view (version 2) that I would like to describe eventually. But my starting point is this observation: most departing churches I know have come to their decision as the result of a gradual accumulation of concerns rather than any one precipitating event.  For many, it has and is a slow-motion process of waking up and realizing something is terribly wrong. For others, there was perhaps one piece of bad news coming from a GAPJC or a GA; but because Presbyterians rarely do anything quickly, a process of discernment has revealed a spiritual and ecclesiastical osteoporosis that is only now causing pain.

Taking the long view, from an evangelical perspective, I see two movements in particular that have sent the PC(USA) off the orthodox path. In each case, there was a precipitating event, unrecognized for its import at the time, but a decision that changed the course of history within our tribe (if not the world).

The first trajectory is a distinctly Presbyterian one, and it focused primarily on the American Church. It was the outcome of the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate in the 1920s. The issue boiled down to whether one’s identification as Presbyterian rested on subscription to basic fundamentals of Christian faith. I have written about this before (here, and here), and only remind us today that an unwillingness to define ourselves doctrinally has allowed Presbyterian leaders to believe and preach whatever they want. “Whatever they want” has crossed the line of orthodoxy in practice, if not in our books. The fact that our Confessions and Book of Order remain as orthodox statements of our faith is irrelevant to people who want to do what they want to do. Freedom of conscience has been enshrined as the only truly meaningful (that is, universally applied) principle of our governance. There is no such thing now as doctrinal purity, because there is no belief standard by which that can be measured. This alone is enough to drive evangelical churches crazy.

The second movement—relevant to our consideration of why conservative churches leave the denomination—is the sexual revolution, and specifically the invention of the birth control pill. What has become a reliable means for family planning in the marriage context has also been permission-giving to sexually active folks regardless of their relational context. It is obvious that over the last fifty years, there has been a significant upsurge in promiscuity (sex without any anchoring commitment), sexual exploitation of women (without the commensurate commitment to raise a family together), and so-called advanced reproductive technologies that have made possible the creation of babies without a relationship at all (sort of a reproductive Tower of Babel). For challenging and insightful reading on this dynamic, read What Is Marriage? by Girgis, Anderson, and George, and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.  

The pressures that result from these trends have all come to bear on the Presbyterian Church, culminating now in its debate about what constitutes marriage.  For the evangelicals who remain in the PC(USA), a redefinition of marriage, possibly (though not inevitably) next summer, would be the straw that breaks the camels back.

Tomorrow: A case study from my Presbytery