Thursday, December 11, 2008

I am a truly happy man...

My wife and I watched the Clive Donner "Christmas Carol" the other night, starring George C. Scott in a role, I believe, he was born to play. I love this particular production of the classic, but what struck me as so powerful this time was the moment at the Cratchet's, when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrive and it is revealed that Tiny Tim has died. Bob comes in late, having stopped by the cemetery, and after a few moments, tears in his eyes, he tells his broken-circle of a family that he is indeed a "truly happy man."

Sentimentality? Only a scrooge would think it so.

Instead, it is a powerful spiritual truth Bob Cratchet voices, one that is evident in scripture and Church History...and not least in the story of Martin Rinkart hymn "Now Thank We All Our God," or "It Is Well With My Soul" by Horatio G. Spafford. In the latter, famously, Spafford wrote the lyric in the face of terrible personal sadness, his family having been lost at sea. During his own subsequent transatlantic voyage, when his ship crossed the same general location where his family's ship had gone down, he enacted with that poem a kind of "in spite of" thanksgiving and experienced, if the lyric indeed by true, a kind of assurance, the peace that passes understanding.

In the case of Rinkart, the Thirty-Year's War had brought Black Death to Bavaria where he worked as a parish pastor. He was performing, by some accounts, as many as fifty funeral a day. In that ethos of sickness and death he wrote, "Now Thank We All Our God, with heart and hand and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in Whom this world rejoices!"

Praise is a choice in the face of grief. No one knows it better than the Psalmists. Thanks is an act of hope in the face of contrary data. No one speaks it better than Rinkart and Spafford. The people of God, and individual believers, have the blessed opportunity and even the sacred obligation to embrace and enact joy irrespective of circumstance. Doxology in the darkest moments of tragedy and fear and grief is neither sentimental hogwash or idiocy--but faith.

This Advent season, like others in years past, I am keenly aware of my many losses. I am quite in touch with my grief and dysthemia--and yet I proclaim, for this Gaudete Sunday and beyond, that I am a truly happy man.

I have work. I have children who talk to me (just today my son called to tell me nothing other than that he had seen a huge hawk, brown and beautiful, on a trashcan beside the road as he made his way to his biology final at his nearby college). I have a wife engaged in ministry and enough writing assignments (and a book deal besides) to keep me busy till July. I have a congregation that vexes me at times, but I know what it is like to be without a place to serve and consequently am so very thankful even for the aggravations (if it lets me stand with God's people at the most important moments of their lives). Besides, I have the prospect of another place of service come July.

Like Bob Cratchet, if I am "a little down"--dysthemics stay in mostly shallow valleys--there are yet those, as Fred Hollywell said to Bob, who have told me they are "heartily sorry." They hear my lament and try their best to understand. They embrace my sense of loss with their own. They do doubt or disdain, and for the most part do not grow impatient with the blues I am given to sing. That, too, is a huge blessing.

And so, this Advent--and not like other years--I look at all my broken circles, the pieces of my life and work, and find myself able to say, indeed choose to say, "I am a happy man. I am a truly happy man."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

King David, meet Thomas Jefferson

A friend used to say, “Whenever you see a church named ‘New Hope,’ there is an old hope out there somewhere. I was reminded of that truism recently when I noticed that we have a new congregation in town, a shaky little fellowship called “Solid Rock Baptist Church.” As I understand it, there was a power struggle at another, larger fellowship nearby and the losers, along with the larger congregation’s now “former” pastor, constituted themselves as a new people, determined to build their worship and practice on the Bible alone, just like Jesus said (and not, you know, like some other folk).

Solid Rock is meeting in a storefront recently abandoned by a group of Pentecostals: the World Evangelism and Outreach Center. In fairness, the church does broadcast its services across the planet via short wave radio. The congregation had outgrown their small strip mall headquarters and Day Care Center/Christian Academy; there were about 80 who began worshiping in a small brick-front metal building constructed in part by their pastor, a second-career fire-baptized holiness preacher who, before his conversion, was a contractor.

Nice man. Intense, though. He has the Bible nearly memorized. His Post-Millenial interpretation of Revelation about got him kicked out of the Assemblies on a heresy charge. He resigned his credentials shortly before the trial was to convene and began his own work. Some like-minded men, members of his former congregation, ordained him, but two of them left WEOC along with their families during the recent construction. There was serious disagreement as to the slope of the parking lot and whether it would properly drain.

Meanwhile, near the “old church” where here my wife serves (planted on a then-all-but-trafficless, now bustling state highway way back in the seventies), no less than three new and exciting fellowships are promised to passersby on big signs here and there along the corridor. Already fifteen denominational and post-denominational congregations flank the road, all of them trying to “reach” and “minister to” the huge and relatively long-lived influx of what used to be called yuppies. With the collapse of the economy, however, as many are moving away, and more, as not so long ago were moving in. The disposable income which was to kindle all this new spiritual fire has mostly disappeared.

“Coming Soon!” signs may soon be replaced by “For Sale” signs, and what does such come and go come and go say of Christ’s Body, the church, or testify regarding the given and abiding Word?

All of this ecclesiastical busyness seems deviantly “sacramental”—which is to say, an outward and visible sign of an inward and unspiritual malady. Frederica Mathewes-Green has summarized the dysfunction in The Illumined Heart. Reflecting on the aftermath of the Reformation she says,

“…the once universal idea that there existed a common deposit of faith had been lost.
The hope of returning to a simple, Bible-based faith was now complicated by the need for
someone to explain what that faith was. Soon many gifted leaders were offering differing
interpretations, and followers aligned with one or another as they found them most

If that dynamic was also true in, say, Corinth, the full consequences were not. She continues,

“The next step was that, if each person can decide for himself whom to follow, each person
can decide for himself what the faith is. The splintering was complete. And since the
current generation is always the one making these decisions, it seemed that the most
innovative, up-to-date ideas were the correct ones…”

The positive side of this reality is that intractable institutions really are intractable and “exodus” may be the only way of freeing its slaves. Additionally, growing up Protestant, and Baptist, in fact, the rending and forming (or reforming!) of congregations never seemed strange to me. At the denominational seminary I attended, students used to say that every congregation we knew or served either had split, was splitting, or dividing up sides and getting ready to. Still, we spun that reality positively: splits aided evangelism, opened doors in otherwise closed situations. Even preachers getting fired, their belongings left on the front lawn and parsonage locks changed, had an upside: persecutions of all sorts had always advanced the kingdom. Blood of the martyrs and all that.

Still, there is something nefarious at work here, I believe. A rejection of tradition, and especially in favor of novelty, may not be an issue of mere “style,” but more nearly of “substance”… a form of idolatry as addictive as any narcotic. Eugene Peterson has noted that when the human heart’s proclivity to idol-making (ala Calvin) is combined with North American consumerism, the sad result is the very kind of soul-numbing market-based smorgasbord that impels people to jump from paten to paten, as it were, that compels religious leaders to do their best and most serious study in terms of what “works” in attracting new folk.

I have noticed another disturbing aspect of the same tendency—this time in my own United Methodist Hymnal. I have long been annoyed that our Psalter is incomplete. There are whole Psalms and sections of Psalms left out (Thomas Jefferson, meet King David. King David, meet President Jefferson). Since most of what has been excised are imprecatories, curses and the like, I assumed some beatnik editor or pacifist professor had demanded the cuts in light of our more "evolved" sensibilities, which are unwittingly literalist and unforgiving of metaphor--forgetting, for example, that in the hymn, "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war," the most important word in that verse is as. And so I was surprised to learn that the evisceration of these hymns of their (sometimes most interesting) parts were a result of John Wesley's own sense that "certain of the Psalms and large portions of others are unfit for Christian lips."

Oh, really?

They were okay for Jesus to say, but not for us? So much for the “whole counsel of God.” So much for the “faith once delivered to the saints.”

Of course, Wesley who also left “descended into hell” out of the creed because he did not personally think there was sufficient scriptural warrant to justify its inclusion. Wonder if he would have had an opinion about the paving at that church?

Hey! I am just kidding! Really! Sort of.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Our Last Best Hope

Does everyone know where they were 67 years ago this Sunday morning?

Some of you were still in the heart of God, of course, not yet a twinkle in your mother’s eyes. Some of your mothers were not born by then either, did not themselves have eyes to twinkle. But there are a few of you in here who know what I am asking. You remember where you were.

For some of you the memory is as clear as the day the Twin Towers fell. You know where you were standing when you got the news, just as well as you know where you were when you heard about the assassinations in Dallas and in Memphis. You remember FDR’s famous line on the Monday following, “December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy.”

About the time church let out on the east coast, a couple of hours later, word began crackling through Philcos of the nation that something was happening, had happened, in the jewel of the Pacific: how at a deep-water harbor named Pearl, the rising of the sun had brought wave upon wave of planes, like bats out of hell, with darkness and death in their wings.
It was 67 years ago today, of course, that Japanese planes and midget subs attacked the US Navy’s unsuspecting and completely unprepared Pacific fleet, our ships and sailors both enjoying another Sunday morning in paradise, snoozing row by row. Ninety minutes later we had been dragged, burned and bleeding and humiliated, into the Second World War.

I did a little research this week, to see if I could find what preachers had been preaching on that morning as the attack got underway. I did not have much success. And so I looked instead at the assigned scriptures for that Sunday, December 7, 1941, in the lectionaries of the day. I didn’t have much luck with that either.

What I do know is last September, when I was inthe mountains reading and praying and outlining sermons for the coming year, when I looked at the the epistle reading assigned for this, the second Sunday of Advent, for this day and date, I found this, from II Peter 3, verse 10:

the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with

And suddenly to my mind came a picture of the USS Arizona, its main tower tilted to starboard and enveloped by billows of black smoke, its might guns useless to defend the ship or its crew or its harbor or its nation, sinking slowly into the sea.

With loud noises, the myth of peace and isolation, of neutrality and national security, dissolved with fire—along with the Missouri and West Virginia, the Oklahoma and USS Tennessee, and 2345 military personnel besides.

Why dredge up that painful past on such a day as this? And especially since, these days, Japan is an ally and friend?
Only to remind ourselves that the things in which we often put our trust—whether the military, political leaders, portfolios, our own youth and health and strength…all of those things pass away. Sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, sometimes with a loud bang, and sometimes with a whimper. Sometimes there is raging fire; sometimes hot embers grow cold. In any case, the season of Advent continually reminds us of our idolatries and presumption, and that a kind of reckoning is coming.

The season of Advent, beautiful as it can be, is a dark season, really—a reminder that try as we might we cannot save ourselves, that things will not naturally get better, that neither optimism nor denial are appropriate preparations for the coming of Jesus.

Advent always looks back, even before it looks ahead. It proclaims the provision of God, of course, but it names the presumptions of God’s people, we who day by day do not put our first, best hopes in God. The season of Advent confesses the sin of God’s chosen, and then God’s grace to choose them again. Advent always calls us to ask ourselves: How did we get into such a mess?

The season of Advent answers, over and over again, that we get into this mess, that mess, most every mess, by placing our faith in other than God. The season of Advent calls us to confess that sin—Advent, until lately, has been considered a penitential season—and to repent, to begin again to put our trust only in those things that last…the Purposes of God, the Presence of Christ, the Guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Advent calls us to sad remembrance and honest confession and humble repentance, to resolute recommitment to build only on the firm foundation of God’s eternity…because all else is fleeting. Passing. Impermanent.

Money. Power. Beauty. Health. Life as we imagine it, or craft it for ourselves. How quickly it can all pass away.

And so Peter says, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

Indeed, what kind of persons ought we to be?

Hopeful…waiting for new heavens and a new earth…

Peaceful and obedient… striving to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.

Patient… regarding the patience of our Lord as salvation.


After that Sunday, I am sure all sorts of people were saying all sorts of things… pundits and politicians, hawks and doves, saber-rattlers and doom-sayers, and preachers among the lot.

But the Psalmist has a word for us as we remember—a word that is set for today but is applicable every day—“Let me hear what the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to the people.”
Indeed. It is a prayer worthy of Advent. Let us hear what the Lord will speak, for the Lord’s word will stand for ever.