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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Being God's Friend

I've felt lonely a good bit lately.  Reading Lee Spitzer's Making Friends, Making Disciples: Growing Your Church through Authentic Relationships (review to come) and reading Genesis have reminded me of Abraham.  Abraham strikes me as a pretty lonely guy.  He left his father's household in Haran and then his nephew Lot left him, and that probably eliminated most or all of his closest relationships.  (It's hard telling how good of friends he and his wife Sarah were.)  And yet, Abraham was God's friend (2 Chr. 20:7Isa. 41:8; Jas. 2:23).  Like friends, they had real conversations with each other, even face to face.  Astonishingly, it really was a bilateral relationship, even with God being God.

I'm wondering if real challenges for me in this season of my journey with God are to treat him as my Friend and to count myself as one of his.  Some might think that seeing God as one's Friend or even one's Father is warm and fuzzy and comfortable and easy and that seeing God as one's King, Lord, and Master is hard.  Not for me.  I've actually gotten pretty comfortable with God as the High and Mighty One who gives me orders to execute.  God helping me, I can do that the rest of my life.  God as my Friend is definitely more unsettling.  Because if God is my Friend, then I have to be vulnerable with him; I have to reveal my insides voluntarily.  I also have to reveal myself regularly.  It's easier to do the "time with God in the morning" thing as something in the field manual to be checked off than it is as genuine conversation.  I can blow over the former, but the latter takes time and intentionality.  And prayer is easier for me as, "O You who are in the heavens, please do this and that, amen" than it is as, "OK, God, we need to talk, and I'd like to hear what you have to say."

But the thing is, I think that this is what God saved me for.  He did want a servant and a son, but he wanted a friend too.  This is what reconciliation is all about (2 Cor. 5:18-21).  It's not just for my good but also for his purpose.  Why would I hold back?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder and the Culture of Humor

Humor is cultural, by which I mean that, generally speaking, there has to be some cultural common ground between two people if they are going to share a laugh.  Now, I'm sure there are some brilliant exceptions.  You could probably drag out some classic, silent Charlie Chaplin footage and show it to me and a tribesman from Papua New Guinea and we would both laugh at it decades after it was shot.  But the overwhelming bulk of humor requires some common ground that is more narrow than simply being human.  Bill Cosby has put millions of people in stitches through his humor about the universal human experiences of growing up and raising children, but you still need to know English to really get it, and language itself is cultural.  And much humor gets a good deal more narrow than that.  There's a part of me that believes (truly or fancifully, I don't know) that Victor Borge is funny to everyone.  Maybe some of his humor is.  But I'm sure that much is not, and I'm certain that most of those parts that are universally funny become exponentially funnier in proportion to one's familiarity with classical music.

Because humor is cultural, that means that the vast majority of humor will be funny to some and not to others.  I remember the first time I saw the sketch of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean going to church.  I was with a group of a few hundred other pastors and their spouses.  I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.  I've seen it a bunch of times, and I still laugh my head off when I watch it.  The room was in a general uproar.  But there was a middle-aged black pastor in the row ahead of me and to my right who had a vague, mild, placid, serious expression on his face the entire time.  I looked at him from time to time wondering how he could be so unmoved by the video and the people laughing all around him.  Maybe his church culture was so different from the one Mr. Bean lampooned that he couldn't relate and it wasn't funny.  Maybe his cultural mores prevented him from laughing because he didn't think that it was appropriate to laugh in the setting where we were.  Or maybe he was just a sourpuss—I don't know.  But I'm guessing there was some cultural gap that I couldn't understand that had to do with why I was laughing and he wasn't.

Humor, as represented by that event, may be one of many illustrations of how culturally diverse the Church is.  And I'm not using "culture" as a euphemism for race, nationality, or ancestry.  America is a culture.  Churchgoing America is a subculture.  White Evangelical Protestant America is an infrasubculture.  Doctrinally Reformed White Evangelical Protestant America is an infra-infrasubculture. And "Young Calvinist" Reformed White Evangelical Protestant America is an infra-infra-infrasubculture.

It is this tiny slice of the human pie that Ted Kluck and Zach Bartels identify themselves with and delightfully skewer in Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder: A Good-Natured Roast.  Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder is an inside joke, and if humor is cultural, then I suspect that the potential for hilarity grows the tighter the circle that understands it gets.  The things that I laugh at the hardest to this day are things that only my wife understands, because they are things that we've experienced together with hardly anyone else.  To us they are gut-busting; to virtually everyone else on the planet they are so unfunny, they are incomprehensible.  This is Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder.  If you're at all familiar with the ways of the tribe, it may be one of the funniest things you read all year; if not, it might as well be a joke in Russian (no, make that Dutch—see, that's a joke that a Reformed person would get).

Now, I'm guessing that most people reading this blog will have difficulty tapping into the exquisite satire of the "Young, Restless, Reformed," "neo-Calvinist," "all 'gospel' all the time" (that last label was mine) movement of the past decade, if in fact you even understand what that jargon means.  But here is a short test to see if you are among the chosen (for those who didn't catch it, another Reformed pun):

1. Do you have a particular affinity to John Piper or R. C. Sproul?  If so, you might be fit for YRR.

2. Do you find appealing Al Mohler, Mark Dever, or C. J. Mahaney?  This book is for you.

3. Do you recognize the names Tim Challies, Justin Taylor, or Greg Gilbert?  For crying out loud, are you telling me YRR isn't on your shelf yet?

4. Do you know anyone who gives you books by one or more of the above personalities multiple times a year?  YRR is the friend who will always listen and never judge you.

5. Do you read the Bible preferably in the English Standard Version (ESV)?  Close enough.  Exclusively?  Yeah, baby.

If none of these apply to you, this book won't make you laugh.  No, wait—buy it anyway for the illustration of Dave Ramsey on page 39.  That's actually worth the price all by itself.

So one more remark of a semi-profound nature that makes my blog the Towering Force for Good that it is.  One of the things that makes Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder so appealing is that it satires a tiny subculture that used to be a teeny-tiny subculture.  In other words, few people are targeted by this, but those few are prone to think that they have become way more notable than they actually are in the grand scheme of over 6 billion people on Earth or even 1 billion professing (even if nominal) Christians.  Satire of the pretentious is delicious; satire of the humble is impossible.  The humility of Ted and Zach is their satire of the pretense around them.  Their work reflects their conviction that while the gospel is eternal, universal, and indescribably important, the incarnation of it among the particular humans they share life with is fleeting, relative, and rather insignificant.  It is a reminder for us all to look carefully in the mirrors that are the Christians who aren't like us to delineate sharply between the word of the Lord that abides forever and ourselves who are grass that are fading away (Isa. 40:6-8).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

One Reason to Be Desperate to Go to Church and Six Reasons We Aren't

In a previous post I mentioned a recent pastors' gathering that I attended.  There were about 30 pastors there in addition to about five staff who facilitated the event, and it was probably the most diverse group of clergy on almost every axis except denomination that I've ever been in.  We had very rewarding, constructive conversations, but they were also exhausting conversations.  Listening to "the other" when "the other" is so different from yourself, maintaining your own position while refraining from passing judgment on the person you're listening to, is really hard work.  So despite how valuable our together-time was, we were all resegregating by the second evening.  It was most easily visible in our hotel lobby, which became a sort of tribal map—young, white, male evangelicals here; black women there; Upstate New York liberals by the window.  I don't think anyone that night became insular out of a rejection of the rest of the group but simply out of fatigue.  For rejuvenation we each needed to join with someone with common experiences, values, and assumptions where we could let down our guard and be replenished.

Last week I preached on Luke 6:12-26, in which Jesus selects the Twelve and pronounces some tough-to-swallow blessings and woes.  The thrust of my message was that being a disciple of Jesus means being a misfit in this world in respect to prayer (vv. 12-13), power (vv. 17-19), poverty (vv. 20-21, 24-25), and persecution (vv. 22-23, 26).  (I had actual points in my sermon, and each one began with the letter "P," so it was pretty much my best sermon, like, ever.)  It occurred to me later that if we're really misfits in the world but really loving the people in it and being people of peace within it, we should be chomping at the bit to get to church on Sunday, because that's the only place in our lives (in some cases including our families) where we're with people like ourselves, where we fit in, where we can be ourselves without fear of the consequences.  Our lives through the week should be so emotionally exhausting loving "the other" that we need to gather with the saints in order to fill up, and we won't want to leave.  In other words, we should feel like the folks at my pastors' gathering did on that Tuesday night.

So if you don't have that urge to gather with the saints and worship—in other words, to get your butt to church—what's gone wrong?  Probably one or more of the following:

1) You're not a misfit in the world.  You aren't emotionally drained by the rest of your life in the world because the world is actually your natural habitat.  You're a comfortably worldly person and not a holy one.  In fact, you don't like going to church because that is the place where it's hard to fit in.

2) You're not listening to "the other" in the world.  You may feel somewhat beaten when you're in your world, but you mitigate the damage by retreating from it even while you're in it.  You avoid interaction with non-Christians around you, taking your lunch and your breaks alone.  When you do engage you are constantly measuring what others are saying so that you can retreat or pass judgment at the first sign of corruption, so your conversations are short and abruptly ended.

3) Your church isn't a community of misfits.  You don't have an urge to gather with the saints because there is no discernible difference between that gathering and the rest of the world.  The arduous task of maintaining self with others is just as arduous in the church as in the rest of your life, so it's just as much a struggle to get yourself there as to get yourself to work, and without the paycheck to boot.

4) You never leave the church to enter the world.  Virtually all your choices tend toward spending time with the people that you do fit in with—believers.  You're not panting for Sunday morning because it is basically the same group that you've spent Monday through Saturday with.  When you do enter the world—for example, to shop at the grocery store—you get in and get out with what you need without taking time to notice the other people there.

5) Your world is culturally Christian even if it's not actually holy.  You live in a community in which Evangelical Christianity is a cultural assumption (e.g., Grand Rapids [I've seen], Colorado Springs [I've heard], Mississippi [which according to a citizen I met "has more Southern Baptists than people"]).  You get along well in your world because you're supposed to say and do Christian things there.  But for this reason it is all the harder to distinguish between what your quasi-Christianized culture considers acceptable and what Christ himself does.

6) You fit in Christ's Church, just not your church.  You feel like a misfit in your church not because you are so comfortable in the world (as in [1]) but because your church has its own norms that mark who belongs and who doesn't, and you don't conform to them.  These norms aren't inherently biblical but are just the way these folks do things (e.g., using the word "share" in place of "talk").  But they unconsciously recognize these norms as the marks of holiness and aren't sure that you measure up to them.

I guess (6) brings me back to my situation at my pastors' gathering.  I am confident that I will have fellowship with the overwhelming bulk of those pastors in the new heavens and the new earth.  But I'll be darned if it isn't hard to have fellowship with a lot of them now.  I don't think it's that hard for Jesus.  But it tires me out, because "my people" with whom I feel comfortable are not the saints of God but the subset of saints who think, talk, and act like I do.

John's Revelation describes the highly adversarial relationship between Christians in the 1st-century Roman province of Asia and their world.  Because I believe that there is also futuristic, "last days" significance for that book, I believe that eventually this will mark all Christians' relationship to the world everywhere, as in much of the world it's already going on today.  Maybe when the whole Church and the whole world look like the Book of Revelation all Christians will feel like misfits in the world and feel at home with all other Christians.  Maybe then and only then will we appear to Christ as a pure and spotless bride.  And maybe then, when we're taking our lives in our hands to do it, we'll all go to church on Sunday.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Discipleship: A Letter from a Friend

Hey Man,

In our chat about discipleship yesterday, it occurred to me that I should quote you on it for my book with ________. Can you shoot me a couple of paragraphs on discipleship? Scriptural basis...what it means to you, etc?




I'll do the best I can to talk about discipleship in light of the fact that I've just begun a process of reinvestigating what that word means.  I don't know how much what I say today will resemble what I say at the end of my search.  I'm calling a lot of my assumptions into question.

"Disciple" is so churchy.  The Greek word it translates basically means "student."  But it's not a student like we carelessly use the term sometimes: a brain container with an ID number and a courses-taken checklist planted in a seat in front of a teacher who is trying to pour information in and tested on how much actually stuck.  Rather, this kind of student is learning to be like his or her teacher (cf. Matt. 10:24-25).  There is a cognitive component to be sure, but thinking what the teacher thinks is just a means or a part of doing what the teacher does or living as the teacher lives.

I was a disciple of my piano teachers.  Interestingly, though I benefited enormously (and necessarily) from my first and third teachers who drilled me on technique, I think I matured the most in the shortest period of time with my second teacher.  Most of our lessons were spent talking, and when it came to the playing, he played more than I did.  But I became more and more like him as a pianist because I spent time with him and picked up his way of doing things.  That's discipleship.  Incidentally, it occurred to me that while ________ is your disciple in the Way of Jesus, you are his disciple in the Way of Auto Repair.  That suggests to me that you are probably learning more about discipleship than I am and that I need to read your book—the sooner, the better.

I think what I've just written is at the core of what Christian discipleship is though I don't think it fully describes it.  But I need to describe that core, and I need to describe what isn't a part of the core but has just been built on it as particular people in particular places at particular times have tried to make disciples in particular ways.  Those ways aren't wrong, but they aren't the core, the essence of discipleship.  And I have an uneasy feeling that I/we have assumptions about what discipleship is that are actually just passing ways of doing it that may be (and need to be) adapted or discarded altogether.

For example, one thing I'm wrestling with is the relationship between discipleship and catechesis (defined here as "transferring doctrine to a new mind," not as memorization of a question-an-answer catechism per se).  It seems the silent assumption everywhere, including often in my own head, is that they are the same thing.  How do you disciple someone?  Throw her in a class.  Give him a book.  But that's absurd.  We have no evidence that Jesus made disciples anything like we try to do.  He didn't teach a class.  He didn't give them a book.  He also didn't give them a book on how to make disciples.  I have books like that on my shelf, which is ridiculous.  It's not that books on discipleship might not stimulate my thinking and give me some more tools—they do—but if I haven't basically learned how to disciple someone by mimicking the person who discipled me then those books are useless.  No one reads their way into Christian discipleship just like no one reads their way into playing the piano or fixing a car.  On the other hand, catechesis is an important piece of the puzzle.  It provides a cognitive framework that can be brought to bear on particular practical issues ("how do I make choices?" "how do I pray?" "how do I endure suffering?") by a skilled teacher, just as Jesus employed the catechesis his disciples received as youngsters in the synagogue.  So I wonder if discipleship and catechesis are separate things, or if they are overlapping things, or if catechesis is one portion of discipleship.

Then there's the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship.  At times Paul and his companions would plant a church, appoint elders, and take off in what we would consider a shockingly short time for someone to go from pagan to Christian leader/teacher.  But they seemed to be confident that what they didn't have time to do with a person was well within the capacity of the Holy Spirit, whose job was to "guide [disciples] into all truth" (John 16:13-15, cf. 1 John 2:20-27).  Do our attempts at discipleship demonstrate any trust that the Holy Spirit teaches people?  Or are we content making catechumens that display no evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives?

Where I'm really groping is what these and other jumbled questions mean for discipleship in the church.  Discipleship as I've begun to define it here is intrinsically relational.  Because we're finite beings, the number of people we can disciple is small.  Because we're diverse beings living diverse lives, the degree to which we can design a step-by-step guide to discipleship is limited.  All of this points to the main outcome of discipleship being the development of a person who is trustworthy and wise enough to disciple someone else that I can't reach in a situation I haven't anticipated.  So how does this connect to Church Programs (small groups, classes, Bible studies, etc.)?  Pragmatically, I don't think it's possible for a church to do the most good for the most people without programs (at least at certain points in its life), and yet true discipleship seems in many ways stubbornly unprogrammatic.  Jesus' instruction of the Twelve as we see it in the Gospels is small-scale, relational, spontaneous, reactive, hands-on, nonliterate, and largely nonlinear in content delivery, most of which is anathema to programs.  Is catechesis to happen through a program but discipleship to take place outside of one?  Do we form disciples and trust that they will lead new students in the right way even if we can't even know for sure that they're doing it, much less control it, a nightmare for anxious pastors like I'm tempted to be?

I've been a disciple of Jesus for about thirty years, a thinking Christian leader-type of some degree for over fifteen, and a pastor for six.  So if I had any clue at all, I would know what discipleship is, right?  But as you can see, I'm at a point where I may have more questions than answers.  It's also a point where tomorrow I'm beginning an extended sermon series in Luke with the theme of—guess what?—discipleship.