Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Need for Peculiar Perspectives

I often enjoy reading the blogger profiles at locust and honey. As a relatively new blogger, I especially appreciate the advice to novice bloggers. One piece of advice proves itself in that it is often repeated: "There's nothing new under the sun. Everything anyone says has been said a thousand times before. You aren't going to shake the pillars of Heaven with your Bold New Ideas" This particular phrase is taken from Ken Lowrey's recent profile.

No doubt this is true not only in blogging but in a multitude of genres. In fact as I watched the live streaming of General Conference this afternoon, I witnessed what I knew would be the case. As a few petitions regarding homosexuality were discussed, highly predictable speeches were made in favor of and in opposition to some of the more contraversial petitions. There were occasional comments that offered insight with regard to implications of particular wording in one petition, but largely the most divisive debates in our denomination go nowhere. There are two loudly repeated sides that reiterate the same points year after year and quadrenium after quadrenium. So tired are the arguments on all sides of these debates that we have the equivalent of political parties that organize to bring more people to their side not by theological persuasion so much as political maneuvering. Some have called general conference the church's version of congress, and indeed at times it seems there is little difference.

Perhaps what we need to move forward is to challenge everyone to speak in new and peculiar ways so we can hear anew the variety of perspectives.

I wish we could take a step back from heartwrenching stories about how many have felt descriminated against and have a conversation about whether or not it is ever appropriate for the church to descriminate--if so/if not what would the implications be.

I wish we could take a step back from stories about the occasional conversion of a homosexul to heterosexuality and discuss whether or not it is appropriate for any of us, homosexual or heterosexual to self-identify based on our sexual impulses in a world that is obsessed with sex.

I do not believe there is any hope in a debate that some partisans would have us believe is between Scriptural Christians and Liberal-Elitist Hethans nor as other partisans might see it, between Self-Righteous Homophobes and Loving, Accepting Christians.

I stongly believe that we are in need of new ways of speaking about the most divisive issues. While it may be true there is nothing new under the sun that one could possibly say, we are in need of new and peculiar perspectives even if they are just the resurrection of an old idea.

For example, maybe we could take a cue from Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. From Chapters 7 and 8 we might imagine Paul telling us, "If you can't agree on who is allowed to have sex with who; then maybe no one should be having sex with anyone so we can focus on our commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ." I don't think this would receive very many votes. And as a young father who expects to have more children, I can't say I would be excited about the prospect--but it is a new thought (or perhaps an ancient thought) in a very tired debate. I would like to see more peculiar thoughts; I think that is our only chance of comming to some agreement on such a contentious issue.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Powerless Church

I visited one of the older members of my congregation this week. As we visited, we talked about children in need of adoption. She mentioned seeing requests on TV for money to save children. She had seen an add for one of the many programs where you can "adopt a child" by sending the finances necessary to meet the child's needs. She told me, as if it were a confession, "they must know that I will always send them money. It just breaks my heart to see those children. I send them money every time. I guess it is just a weakness of mine." A weakness I thought? I guess that is what we might call it, a weakness--a lack of ability to stay strong and say no. "Well," I told her, "When it comes to those kinds of weaknesses, sometimes they are our greatest strengths."

After our visit, I got to thinking about the church and General Conference. One thousand people gathered together to speak for our entire denomination--power! The church as an institution is powerful and has multiple power structures. There is a widely assumed "chain" with regard to appointment (both in terms of churches and pastors) there are superintendents, bishops, and, of course, our conferences. On occasion the council of bishops and other representatives even get the ear of the president--power (if only he would listen).

And yet I recall reminded by a 92 year old's weakness with regard to starving children that we are not called to be powerful. Rather we are called to brokenness before God that we might be sent as God's servants.

Perhaps (and this is a note ultimately to myself) we should not obsess too much about about what our church's most powerful body is doing to move our church forward but on what we can do in our local communities to empower the powerless.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Best of All Possible Worlds

A congregation member recently gave my wife and I tickets to see the NYC Opera's production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide.

At the core of the production is Voltaire's realist attack against the optimist Gottfried Leibniz, whose philosophy is paraphrased in the second song of the first act,
Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds /
One finds that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Through ironic misfortunes of grossly optimistic characters, the resolution of the show is the eventual discovery of realism as optimism is made to appear largely ridiculous. In the end, Candide decides that since he can know nothing other than what is, he should just work the day away and find happiness in his daily toil.

The production effectively reveals the folly of the statement, "Once one dismisses all other possible worlds, one find that this is the best of all possible worlds." But it does so by attacking the second part of the line--that this is the best of all possible worlds. The production does not call into question the assumption that all other possible worlds should be dismissed. Similarly, as the show made fun of the church, it made fun of a church full of corruption that blindly proclaimed that all things as they are are for the best. It didn't deal with the fact that the church at its best does not concede the point that all other possible worlds can be dismissed; nor does it proclaim that the world as we know it is the best of possible worlds.

This is perhaps the failure of traditional liberal theology which rises out of the optimistic enlightenment. We need a way of acknowledging that this is not the best of possible worlds while also realizing that because of grace in Christ we are empowered to, in union with God, work towards a world which more perfectly reflects the Reign of God (the best of all possible worlds--taking into account the rest of all possible worlds).

Monday, April 14, 2008

On Being A Jealous Father

In the past couple of months, my daughter and I have developed a ritual as I leave the house for work. I used to sneak out so she didn't see me--if she did, she would cry and cry. But somehow we have negotiated a leaving for the day routine. I tell her good bye, and as I go down the stairs to leave, we give each other a kiss in between each of the spaces between the bars in the stairwell. When we run out of spaces, my daughter smiles and says happily "bye bye," or "see later." It is a precious ritual and I cherish each kiss and the ritual itself. It is something that she and I share. It is ours.

Today, my mom arrived from Indiana to spend the week with us. We don't see her often, so I am glad when our daughter can spend time with grandma. I am happy to see that she recognizes grandma and enjoys her. But this afternoon when grandma went downstairs for a nap, my daughter proceeded to induct her into the ritual I thought belonged to just us. She offered kisses to grandma in between each of the spaces in the stairwell. "What!" I thought. That is our ritual, that is something that we do!.

I am reminded of a recent post (sorry, I forget whose blog it was and can't find it) about concerns regarding Oprah theology. In the video Oprah referred to reading that God is described as a jealous God in the Bible. Her response was no, God can't be jealous. I have encountered that sentiment among a number of congregants in different churches. It seems to be an imperfect quality. And yet it seems that if something that rightly belongs to you is given to someone else, feeling jealous is quite appropriate.

Now, I don't mean to equate my sense that my daughter's good by ritual kisses belong to me with our affection and desires belonging to God, but this experience has given me a window. That God is jealous is a way of saying that God cares. God, being our creator, redeemer and sustainer is the appropriate recipient of all of our love, affection, and worship. When that affection is directed to an inappropriate place, a caring God can't help but be jealous.

Today I have lost the sense of the ritual with my daughter being something that just the two of us share--and to be honest I am a little jealous. It isn't a jealousy directed against my mom or that wishes my daughter loved no one else, but a jaelousy that seeks a truly special relationship with my daughter. I imagine that my life as a father will be filled with special moments, and with special moments losing meaning. But, I also imagine that this means my life as a loving, caring father will also be filled with streaks of righteous, and perhaps not so righteous jealousy. In either case, it makes me feel pretty good about the extent to which our jealous God loves each of us.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Similarities between Sex and Preaching or Was that Sermon as Good for you as it Was for Me?

Okay--so I couldn't resist using the word "Sex" in my Title. My Mother-in-Law works with a publishing company and says titles with the words "sex" or "Jesus" sell well. We have joked about coming up with a bestseller title that might include both words in the same Title!--Be creative.

But Seriously... as My Wife and I have continued rediscovering Gary Thomas' Devotions for a Sacred Marriage we came across a chapter on the importance of fellowship in marriage. The chapter begins with with an imagined conversation around one of the author's favorite marital activities--long walks. Parodying pop-cultural post sex talk cliches, Gary writes, "It would never occur to me after [a long walk in the woods] to immediately pelt Lisa with the question,

'So, was that an especially good walk?'
'What are you talking about?'
'Well, was that walk as good for you as it was for me?'
'Gary, have you lost your mind?'
'I want to know! Was that walk better than the last walk? Was it, maybe, the best walk you ever had?'

The point he makes is that such talk could cheapen and ruin any otherwise great experience. I wonder if this sometimes happens with preaching as well. To be honest, I often feel pressure (which I put on myself) to always preach my "best" sermon ever. It is a rush to deliver a good one, and I have to admit, that I would rather have compliments on my sermon than no comments at all. (The first sermon I preached at my first appointment solicited the comment from one congregant, "well, that's one down!)" I think if our church members are honest too, they look forward to good sermons.

And yet somehow it seems that if we enter into a worship experience to encounter God and the sermon is part of the vehicle for that experience--maybe we cheapen the experience by asking the question, "How good was that sermon?" That isn't to say I think it is wrong to put effort into making sermons good--certainly if the sermon is a vehicle which aids our encounter with God, it deserves hard work and reflection. But maybe we (I) do need to be careful not to find ourselves cheapening encounters with God with evaluation that boils down to something not far from, "wow, that was the best I've ever had."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Variable Theological Leanings

I was recently asked if I consider myself a liberal, conservative, or middle of the road. Since I struggle with identifying myself in this way, I said middle of the road. For some reason, I felt the need to elaborate and continued, "When I am in liberal settings, I find myself more conservative, and when in conservative settings more liberal." The person I was talking with said, okay, so middle of the road. Another person chimed in, and flexible!

I don't know if flexible quite gets it, but I tend to emphasize theological aspects and categories that seem absent from whatever my current setting is. In a church full of people who see no problem with ordaining homosexual pastors and fully including homosexuals I tend to emphasize the need to wrestle with some scripture and traditional theological paradigms. In other settings where there is fear of homosexuals being fully included in the church community, my emphasis is on the universal nature of Jesus' message and the challenges to traditional thinking that Christ often offers.

Perhaps at the heart of it, my theology is ecclesiological. I am constantly fully aware of other positions that faithful Christians take and I tend to emphasize the inclusion of ideas contrary to the accepted norm of the culture in which I find myself. Meanwhile I have to be honest with myself that I am one person who does ultimately fall somewhere on the continuum--I think relatively close to the middle.

Do you find that your theological leanings vary based on your setting? If so, do you tend to take on some of the theology in which you are surrounded or do you tend in the opposite direction?