Friday, January 12, 2018

Thoughts on my fellow Memphis area pastor, Andy Savage

For the last several days I’ve been wrestling with what is appropriate for me, as a pastor in the Memphis, TN, area, to say publicly and openly about the situation involving Andy Savage, Highpoint Church, and Jules Woodson. After members in my congregation asked me about my perspective Wednesday night, I’ve come to the point where I feel compelled to offer some thoughts. 

For starters, let me deal with the log in my own eye: 20 years ago, I too was a young youth minister while finishing college, and I remember (sometimes with an accompanying facepalm) plenty of foolish mistakes and times when I sinned against those in my youth group or congregation. Throughout my adult life I’ve also faced my share of temptations toward sexual sin and other sins, and have failed in succumbing to those temptations more times than I wish were true. And, again thinking back to my late teens and early 20s, I remember times when, even as a Christian, I was inappropriately physical with women I was dating. 

Which is to say: I don’t believe that sexual sin is unforgivable, nor is the truth of sexual sin in a man’s past an automatic disqualification for ministry. And I do believe that every pastor fails his congregation, sometimes makes grievous mistakes, and sins against them. I’m certainly example #1 of all of these.

But the situation with Andy Savage is different.

I don’t know Andy personally, and frankly had never heard of him before very recently. I don’t know all of the circumstances or details of the history of what happened in Texas 20 years ago, nor do I know all of the details or circumstances about how things have unfolded in the last few weeks at Highpoint Church. I don’t profess to be an expert on sexual abuse or the abuse of power. (My brief account of events below can be supplemented easily by articles in the Kansas City Star, CBS News, and the New York Times, among others.) 

But from what I do know, I can tell you that the situation with Andy Savage is different. It’s not just a case of a pastor involved in an “unfortunate incident” that can be easily reconciled or dealt with “internally.” And it’s not just a case of past sin, even sexual sin. There’s a difference between sexual sin and predatory sin.

Andy Savage, taking advantage of his position and authority as a pastor in a church, drove a 17-year old girl under his pastoral care into the woods and sexually assaulted her. Afterward she spoke to another pastor on staff, Larry Cotton, about the assault; instead of pastoring her well and seeking justice and healing, he instructed her to keep silent about it and, by all appearances, he and the rest of the staff sought to cover it up. Andy Savage was gradually relieved of his responsibilities and allowed to leave to serve another church. Nothing to address this abuse and assault directly was ever done, as far as I can tell, until very recently. And for the most part what action has been taken is as frightening as it is disappointing. 

While Jules Woodson has had to deal with almost two decades of shame, nightmares, and PTSD from being sexually assaulted by her pastor, that pastor has been allowed to continue in a long career of ministry, eventually co-founding a megachurch, publishing several books, and hosting a radio show. And for most of those 20 years, Jules Woodson remained silent—until sharing her #MeToo testimony on a website in early January. She also posted a copy of an email she’d sent to Andy Savage in December.

Following this, Andy Savage first responded by Twitter and a statement on his blog (neither of which is available to the public any longer). I had a chance to read his statement before it was taken down, and was disappointed by the subtle gaslighting, deflection, and downplaying I read there. He referred the an “unfortunate sexual incident” that he “regretted”—with no mention of his failure to be truly accountable for his actions, or of the other pastor’s neglect to provide protection and support of Savage’s victim.

For reasons I don’t know (but I speculate that it was because it became clear to the leadership of Highpoint Church felt that the blog statement was not going to make it all go away), Andy Savage presented an “admission” to his congregation this past Sunday after a lengthy, qualifying introduction by co-pastor Chris Conlee (it was live-streamed; click here to see the “testimony” on YouTube). In it, he did not recount anything about his assault of a teenager, but claimed that “in agreement with church staff, I took every step to respond in a biblical way” and that he “accepted full responsibility for [his] actions.” He asserted that “this incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago” and claimed that he believed everything had been done that was needed. When he was done with his statement, the congregation rose for a standing ovation, and Chris Conlee spoke further about how grateful he and Andy were for the support of the congregation, then he prayed for Andy, the Savage family, and for Jules Woodson.

To be fair, Andy Savage’s statement on the video seems utterly sincere and he apparently demonstrates what can only described as remorse. And, giving all benefit of doubt to Savage, it may indeed be that he did everything that he was counseled to do by his fellow staff and the pastors he served under—which casts troubling light back on Larry Cotton and the others on staff, at very least. On the other hand, according to my fellow pastor Mike Sloan, outward sincerity is something that abusers can summon at will—and given the facts that Andy Savage has at various times changed his story, hidden his Twitter feed from public viewing, taken down his initial blog post, rationalized his actions and response, and blamed Jules Woodson for being complicit, this may be exactly what he is doing.

Even if he is utterly sincere and remorseful, the situation is still troubling. So what is so troubling about this? What makes this situation different?

First, Jules Woodson should have been supported, protected, loved, and encouraged by her church family—especially by the pastoral staff. She should never, ever have been made to feel that she was at fault or complicit in any way; they should have believed her, disavowed any shame on her part, and offered counseling and pastoral care. The way that she has been dealt with, then and now, is generally shameful and embarrassing for the church.

Second, let’s acknowledge plainly that, whatever happened in the moment or in the wake of Andy Savage’s sexual assault of Jules Woodson, no true justice has been sought for this. Final justice, of course, belongs to the Lord—and yet Christians are also commanded to seek justice in the world as faithful living in the Kingdom. Jules Woodson is the victim of assault, and deserved to have justice pursued on her behalf instead of what she received.

Third, this was not simply “sexual sin”—which, as a pastor, would have been similarly troubling and threatening to his ministry—but was a clear case of abuse of power and assault. In some states there are laws that categorize any sexual contact between a pastor and someone under his care as sexual assault, regardless of age or consent, because of the recognition that pastors are people in positions of authority. Add in the fact that she was still 17 and under her parents’ care and authority, and (regardless of what Texas law may stipulate about ages of consent) it was also a clear breach of ethical boundaries. Nothing about this “sexual incident” was okay or “normal” or anything like that.

Further, it raises the honest question: “Who else?” Andy Savage claims there has never been another incident like this one in his life. Let’s hope and pray that is true. But there are markers, as Mike Sloan pointed out to me, of the traits of an abuser. If that’s the case, there may be other victims as well who, like Jules Woodson, have been shamed and guilted into lonely silence. And if that is the case, it’s fair to say that those victims too have been robbed of pastoral care, mercy, and justice.

Also, Andy Savage, Larry Cotton, and the rest of their staff sinned and erred by not dealing with the situation publicly, openly, and decisively. He shouldn’t have been allowed to resign, but should have been fired. It should have been announced to the congregation that he was fired for sexual impropriety with a member of the youth group for whom he was given care. And he should have been placed under the public discipline of the church, and not simply allowed to “move home” to avoid continuing to deal with it.

Next, it appears that the leadership of both churches (though Highpoint perhaps less so) are caught up in a pattern of self-protection, more concerned about avoiding controversy than about addressing sin in a biblical way. This is evident, among other things, in casting Andy Savage as a “victim” in this whole situation alongside the true victim he assaulted. I can appreciate Chris Conlee’s attempts to be careful with how he worded things and also to speak of the need for support and healing for Jules Woodson, there were many statements that he made which made me feel like he was downplaying the reality of things and trying to separate what Andy Savage did from the fallout that it wreaked in Jules Woodson’s life. If anything (and again, giving as much benefit of doubt as possible), it almost seems like Andy Savage realizes that, then and now, there are far more consequences to his sin against her than anyone else will acknowledge—or possibly even than anyone else will allow him face. Once more I’ll reiterate that I don’t know the circumstances intimately, but I could totally believe a situation where, as a twenty-something, he wasn’t permitted to speak as freely or accept the consequences as fully as maybe even he himself felt was right.

Finally, the response of Highpoint Church as a congregation is disturbing. I’ve been in congregations where one person starts clapping and everyone else, not knowing what’s appropriate or not, just follows along. And I certainly recognize that having one of your pastors stand up and make a statement (however devoid of details) confessing to serious sin in the past would make for an awkward moment. But whatever the right response to this situation is, a standing ovation isn’t it. I know someone would say, “They weren’t applauding sin; they were applauding God’s grace which is big enough for any sin.” Still, it doesn’t feel right to me.

Where do we go from here? I’ll simply speak pastorally in a few directions.

To Jules Woodson: I am so, so sorry that you have faced all that you have. I’m sorry that someone you trusted and relied upon took advantage of that and abusively assaulted you sexually. And I’m sorry that others whom you trusted afterward betrayed you the way they did. You’ve never received the justice that your assault deserved, or the support and love that your church congregation had pledged to you. You’ve had to face two decades of pain, suffering, shame, loneliness, and false guilt because of the abuse of power and sexual violence of a pastor. My heart aches for you, and I pray that somehow you will find the true peace that Christ offers to sufferers.

To Andy Savage: I recognize that you saw the grievous nature of your sin almost immediately and owned that before Jules, and I acknowledge the remorse that I heard in your words as you spoke to Highpoint Church recently. I pray that those were truly sincere and not merely an abuser’s façade. I acknowledge that you simply may not have known what to do 20 years ago, and thus may have relied too heavily upon the counsel and guidance of men you trusted and who failed you. But your conscience, then and now, were and are telling you what was right, and you have followed the wrong path instead of heeding it. A video live-stream with a brief apology is not sufficient for the suffering your sin brought to another’s life. The apparent efforts made by you and others to minimize and cover up this sequence of sins appears manipulative, not repentant. As a fellow pastor and your brother in Christ, I would urge you to step aside from your leadership in the church, seek counseling and come to real terms with what havoc you brought into Jules Woodson’s life, and open yourself up to hearing from her directly about the pain you caused, admitting it and seeking true forgiveness.

To the leadership of the congregations involved: I appreciate that Larry Cotton has been put on leave of his current congregation in light of how he failed to act appropriately years ago. I urge Highpoint Church to take this matter at least as seriously, and not present abuse and assault as something applaudable or as an opportunity for an object lesson. Don’t downplay the severity of your pastor’s sins, or cast him as a victim in this scenario. Be willing to speak boldly and frankly about sin, even if it risks bringing controversy or makes your congregants ill-at-ease. Please, don’t protect or shelter abusers and give them the cover of the leadership dealing with matters “internally”—handle them with appropriate transparency and in accordance with the law and with the ethics that Scripture demands of treating those who are vulnerable and victimized with dignity, respect, and justice. Be bold and faithful enough to practice biblical discipline even (especially!) when it comes to the leadership of the church. 

To believers in the Memphis area and elsewhere: please, demand of your church that they treat sexual abuse and child victimization as seriously as they possibly can. Ask them if they have child protection policies in place, and if they do not then ask why. If they are dismissive or flippant about the issue, then it is likely time to find a new church. And if you need to talk through this topic and don’t feel you have someone to talk to, feel free to reach out to me—if I don’t know the answers, I can put you in touch with someone who will.

Resources that are worth your time:

GRACE (God’s Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) ministry—a turn-key guide to child protection policies and practices for the local church

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hollow Cries and Doomsday Declarations

An old friend of mine recently linked to this article from a website he is affiliated with: "A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion." A quick summary is this: the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes the "vitals of religion" (a phrase taken directly from the PCA's Book of Church Order) will inevitably lead to the Presbyterian Church in America looking like the liberal mainline denomination that the PCA split from, the PC-USA.

I think the writer is correct that what constitutes "vitals" changes over time, but I disagree that this automatically means an increasing tendency toward liberalism. I think the PCA is actually a case in point that this simply isn't so.

When the PCA was formed in 1973, it was done under the banner of the authority of Scripture as the central and most fundamental "vital" to be subscribed to. Fair enough—but any good Baptist then or now could subscribe to that, and thus many of the PCA churches established in the early years of the denomination were quite baptistic in form and practice, if not technically in their claim of theological standards. I personally have known ruling elders ordained during that era who admitted that they had never read the Westminster Confession of Faith. It wasn't really until the union with the RPCES in 1982 that a deeper commitment to distinctively Reformed doctrines became more prominent.

Since then, if anything, the PCA has gotten arguably more theologically conservative in its self-described "vitals" and in the documents adopted as containing our positions. The position papers on divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and the insider movement are prime examples; even the position paper on creation, while broader than some would argue is acceptable, nevertheless defined parameters that clearly excluded certain views. Meanwhile, the study committee on Federal Vision theology (which many presbyteries now ask transfers and ordinands to avow their agreement to) also laid down some clear lines. Most recently, the study committee report at the last GA on women in the church asserted in no uncertain terms that there is no exegetical or ecclesiological basis for ordaining women to an office in the church.

(In addition to this incline instead of decline, our presbyteries are still assured their right to define the terms of their own membership in our preliminary principles, and some do.)

Thus, the persistent claims of a certain segment of the PCA that we're on a slippery slope where one slight misstep will undoubtedly result in the theological downfall of the denomination, to me, seems hollow or even bitter. There is a curmudgeonly quality to the way they continue to rant about this, with another article or blog post passed around once a month or so describing how the denomination is on the verge of theological heterodoxy. The one linked above is merely the latest example.

Meanwhile, some/many from that same segment seem increasingly committed to using unsavory tactics to accomplish their goals of fear-mongering and flag-planting at the Assembly level. I experienced this first-hand two General Assemblies ago, when I served on the Committee of Commissioners for the Administrative Committee (AC). As it happened, that was the year that the AC brought forth the recommendation to form a study committee on women in the church. As the discussion proceeded, it quickly became evident to me that the flag-planting crowd had worked hard (I'm almost inclined to say they "conspired") to stack the committee with men who would oppose this action, and indeed the result was that the committee's report recommended that the assembly vote it down.

Now, how do I know that they stacked the C of C thusly? Because when it was brought to the floor then those who opposed forming that study committee were obviously a minority. Yet the C of C structure is meant to be a representative body of the denomination as a whole. One would think if that were the case then the C of C would have had a greater diversity of voices than it did.

Ironically, the same voices that frequently serve as spokesmen for this group of flag-planters are quick to fuss about any other groups they perceive as colluding to subvert the will of the assembly as a whole—most recently, a group known as the National Partnership. The flag-planters assert that their actions are different, because if they gather or communicate then they do so openly for all to see. But experiences like mine with the AC committee of commissioners seem far too coincidental for this claim to be believed.

There have always been subsets of the denomination who discuss their views and make use of connections and relationships to enhance understanding and even cooperate in advancing certain points of view. Personally I've never been a part of one—unless you count the conversations over meals or drinks that take place organically. But they exist, and always have. I'm not particularly troubled by their existence, nor do I feel threatened by the presence of those groups that I may disagree with on certain issues.

What troubles me about the linked article, others like it, and the subset group that has devoted themselves to planting their flag and trying to "take back" the denomination as a bastion of conservative, orthodox Reformed theology is two-fold.

First, as I've asserted above, I think they are simply wrong—or at least presumptively overstating the status of the PCA. I believe that most other teaching elders of the denomination similarly consider their rants and prognoses as overblown hyperbole. But as is so often the case, yelling and stomping one's foot enough will make people pay attention, and thus the average member and even many ruling elders are given over to the misimpression that the latest heated discussion—or the next one—amounts to the PCA's having stepped on a trigger of a landmine, and we are about to be blown up.

Second, it presents as uncharitable at best, and unbrotherly at worst. A friend once commented that "no one outside of the PCA accuses us of being soft on conservative theology." I think that is still true. But the reputation of the PCA is being re-defined by the petty, bitter squabbles about whether we are conservative enough, rather than by our commitments to administering the Gospel effectively. The PCA is full of amazing testimonies of how God is at work using our humble denomination as an instrument of grace, but the loudest noises coming from within our midst seem to be grumbling instead of praise.

A final comment to how some of my fellow elders have taken on an uncharitable attitude is also immediately relevant: originally I began writing this out as a (much briefer) comment to my old friend's Facebook post that linked to the article. However, the last time I wrote a comment on something this friend posted, he deleted it. The only reason I can see for doing so is that he didn't want any words opposing or questioning his position. It's his Facebook wall, and he can choose to allow what he will—but if he's not planting a flag, it seems like he might be more open to iron sharpening iron even (or especially) on matters of vital importance.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Race, Racism, Culture, and Problems

In my small and relatively insignificant corner of the world, topics of race, racism, white culture, black culture, and the problems related to all of the above have been on my mind and heart heavily for the last few weeks. This has been a topic within my church (the Presbyterian Church in America), where it was the center of many conversations at our annual General Assembly last week. It has been a topic in the national news, when—as you already know, unless you’ve been out of touch with any news whatsoever—an avowed white supremacist entered an African Methodist Episcopal church in my home state and gunned down nine members of that congregation. It has been a topic within my own family for other more personal reasons. 

It’s a topic that I cannot avoid—not that I’m trying to avoid it, nor am I interested in doing so. Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to enter the fray regarding this topic, not least because I’ve felt that anything I may have to say about it is probably already being said much better by someone else, and on the other hand my own words about it would likely get drowned out by the many, many voices speaking up about it. 

But it is an important topic, and one that has rightly come front and center for the last year (beginning with the events and injustices in Ferguson, MO—another place and event that was close to me, as I called St. Louis home for longer than anywhere else other than my hometown. It has also been on my mind for the last year because, last summer, my family moved back to the Memphis, TN area, and as we re-acclimated to the culture here I’ve been reminded more times than I would like just how deeply Memphis and the Mississippi Delta region have been in the thick of racial tension for the last half-century and more.

As much as I’ve read about this vital issue, there are some things that I have yet to see someone articulate—or state in the way I would, from the perspective that I have—that may be worth hearing/reading. So I have set out to put a few thoughts into words and sentences, which hopefully will add to the many well-stated articles and blog posts out there as a voice of harmony: not singing the same “melody" as the rest, but also not so dissonant that it undermines the important words of others either.

(I’ve put these in “bullets” not because they are all that brief but due to the fact that the paragraphs below are related only loosely to each other.)

  • The last day of General Assembly for the PCA (and particularly from about 7pm on) was incredibly moving, humbling, and, overall, a powerful and large step in the right direction. I am grateful that my denomination seems poised to take real action, from the highest levels on down, to make confession of our sins regarding racial injustice, inequality, and indifference. It is encouraging to see those who sometimes (and even frequently) disagree come together in unity to act on this. Yet I find myself wrestling with temptation to be pessimistic, and even cynical, about the possibilities of how this will play out: too many times, an action like this one (where something substantial happens at a denominational level) can serve as an excuse or even cover for local congregations that need to do much, much more than just pass resolutions to simply give a nod toward the denomination’s action and little or nothing more. I pray that the small part of me that doubts will be astounded by how wrong I am.
  • Like many others, I applauded the words of one of the founding pastors of the PCA, Jim Baird, when he stood and gave assent to his own participation in racial injustice in the denomination’s early years. Like others, I recognized this publicly by posting a photo of him on Facebook and Twitter, calling his action “brave, humble, and heroic.” I stand by my claim that this was indeed a powerfully humble thing; however, after being checked by my friend Jeremy, I have reconsidered whether it was truly “heroic”—and I think now I must say that, as great a moment as that was, it fell short of true bravery and heroism. In re-reading the transcript of what was said, there were ways in which Dr. Baird hedged his words a little too much, and qualified his positions and actions too frequently. I’m certain that saying what he did took great humility and no small amount of courage, but it also strikes me as falling short of what we needed to hear from one of our remaining founding fathers: that the actions of many PCA churches were not just indifferent but aggressively (even if often passively) racist, that we need to repent of that as a denomination, and that local churches need to repent of that as congregations. Given the context—where he was in perhaps the very most favorable of all circumstances to make such a public confession—he would have had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, in making such a statement. It is impolite, I admit, to critique another man’s public confession of sin, and I apologize for that; but I feel the need to say it, as much to recant my own public statement as anything.
  • There’s something to be said for giving people credit for “progress” when it comes to growth with regard to their worldview and cultural mindset, such as how they think about racism and those of other races. I’ve heard, and said myself, qualifications like, “…considering that they grew up in a racially segregated culture…” But let’s keep that in check; the American Civil Rights movement began over 60 years ago, and even the oldest generations among us have lived more than two-thirds of their lives under its influence. It’s time to stop giving a pass to people who persist in racist behavior (even—and especially—when it is more subtle and passive) just because they are old. I know a man who, in his 50s, decided to stop going by “Dick” and start self-identifying as “Richard” because he recognized that the former made some people uncomfortable. If he can change his very identity for something so relatively insignificant, who among us is unable to strive to change something that is as important as racism?
  • I’ve heard and read the words of a number of people criticizing public officials for “politicizing” the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston, SC. This doesn’t make any sense to me; isn’t this precisely what we both need and expect our civic leaders to do in a moment of local, national, and cultural crisis? It may be idealistic and even naïve of me, but I think that is actually what they are there for. Politicians are put into office to serve their constituencies, and service to them at this moment should look like a compassionate display of commitment to stand against such acts, as well as the motivations that beget such acts. Or, put another way: if circumstances like what we’ve seen this week are not the very reason for our civic leaders, then we actually have a very low view of the offices they hold (and should cease complaining when they “don’t lead” in other occasions).
  • One thing that has struck me is just how deep the racist divide goes in terms of an “us vs. them” mentality, and how this affects the way people speak. At General Assembly, I heard someone say that they hoped that the African-American pastors in the PCA could/would “teach us” (my emphasis) how to relate to “them” more inclusively. I’ve read, in response to the Charleston shooting, that “we” (referring, of course, to white people) need to see this as the racially-motivated crime that it is. If true racial reconciliation is going to occur culturally—within the church and/or outside of her—then white people have to stop talking like this! “We” includes black people and white people, as well as hispanics, asians, and other ethnicities and/or races. Do I think about the fact that every time I say “we” or “us” and mean white people, I may be inadvertently setting up my black, asian, or other non-white brothers and sisters as outsiders? (I do now.)
  • The shooting at Emmanuel AME was unquestionably a racist act, and as such fits the bill as a “hate crime.” It was a crime that was deeply rooted in sin and specifically in the disregard for the lives of others. Yes; AND, it’s also an act that should call us to consider how guns come into play in crimes like this. Sure, he could have used a knife, an axe, or a match—but he didn’t. (And can we agree that he probably would have been subdued without killing as many, at least, as he did, had he been using a knife or an axe?) We have sin problems in our culture, we have race problems, and we also have gun problems. Arguing that “guns are not the issue” is simply a false dichotomy and, in my opinion, willfully turning a blind eye to one of the pressing matters that also needs to be addressed, along with race and sin. Can we quit treating these as if they are simple “either-or” issues? (I say this as a gun owner, by the way.)
  • It so happens that I am preaching tomorrow; I seriously considered setting aside the sermon I was planning to preach, and instead turning to Scripture to exhort the congregation about race and racism. I’m not going to, because I’m not the pastor of the congregation I’m preaching to and that is really his ministry to them, not mine. That said: if your pastor hasn’t seized upon the many cultural moments that have presented opportunity to preach about the problems of race and racism in our world, perhaps you should ask him why he hasn’t. The reconciliation of the gospel is not only about racial reconciliation (and some pastors err in seemingly trying to make it so), but it certainly does include racial reconciliation. You—and me, and all of us who sit under the preaching of God’s Word—both need and deserve to be taught and ministered to on that topic, especially when the topic is so pressing culturally.

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. Thanks, as always, to my tens of readers (if you’ve made it this far) for checking in.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pep Rallies and Denominational Divides

…Or, why I don’t fit into “categories” (and I don’t think you do either)

If you’re into the “inside baseball” of denominational polity—and perhaps especially within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—then the last couple of days have probably been an occasion for pondering and assessment. A couple of days ago, the latest issue of byFaith magazine (the PCA’s denominational publication) came in the mail, and yesterday byFaith’s website ( posted an article from it: “The State of the PCA” by Dr. Bryan Chapell. On the heels of that, today saw the publication of a response on the Reformation21 website: “Dear Bryan: Replying to ‘The State of the PCA’" by Dr. Rick Phillips.

Both articles are written by respected and influential men in the PCA. Dr. Chapell is the President Emeritus of the PCA’s Covenant Theological Seminary, a seasoned pastor, the author of a number of books, and the current (and soon-to-be outgoing) moderator of the denomination. Dr. Phillips is a leader and board member of a number of familiar ministries (the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, The Gospel Coalition) as well as Westminster Theological Seminary, and is also a seasoned pastor and published author. While I don’t know Dr. Phillips personally, I do happen to have some background with Dr. Chapell—he was my professor at seminary, and also offered personal counsel to me on more than one occasion. What I know to be true of Dr. Chapell is, I am certain, also true of Dr. Phillips: these are men who deeply love Christ and his church, are committed to the advance of the gospel, and long for greater unity within the PCA.

Good Intentions

So I take for granted the fact that both articles have as their intent the goals of giving clarity to what has sown division among our denomination, and also identifying hoped-for paths toward overcoming that division. What I wonder, however, is whether the approach that these articles employ is useful to reach those goals—or are they actually counterproductive?

Both Dr. Chapell and Dr. Phillips do a fine job—though at different points—of highlighting areas where division rests. As I read each piece, I found things to affirm and agree with, recognizing wisdom in how they exposed particular problems in the PCA. It’s probably fair to say that, if you want to get an accurate picture of how to divide up the various members of the PCA according to categories, you should read both of these articles and generate something of a synthesis.

My question is: why do you want to divide us up that way?

Pep Rallies

I went to Hammond School, a small private school, from first to twelfth grade. It happened that this school had a pretty strong athletic program (regularly winning state championships in football, basketball, baseball, and soccer), and during my time there that was a point of great pride and unity among the student body. (That athletic tradition still continues, and is still a minor source of pride: “our” football team has gone to the state championship for the last eight years straight, winning six of those; both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams competed in the state finals this year, and the boys’ team won it.)

Pep rallies at Hammond were an interesting experience. They were raucous, energetic events—we knew that this was one of the things that brought us together the most. Yet, there would inevitably be a point where the emcee would introduce some sense of intra-school competition, usually in the form of, “Which class can cheer [read: yell] the loudest?”

Was it the lowly freshmen? The coming-into-their own sophomores? The restless juniors? The confident seniors? Maybe even the rowdy eighth graders or the barely-adolescent seventh graders?

The thing is: this was a very small school. My graduating class had 34 members (so, yes, I finished in the top 30 of my graduating class). The whole K-12 student body was smaller than my wife’s single class. I had good friends who were four and five grade-levels above me, and by the time I graduated I knew most of those students below me down to the seventh grade. I still keep in touch with a number of fellow Hammond students (mostly via Facebook); recent sudden deaths of alums, even though not a part of my own class, stung as though they had been in my year.

Because the student body was so small, almost every school activity included students spanning four and five grade levels: school plays were for seniors and seventh graders alike; the chorus had eighth grade students alongside juniors. Varsity sports might celebrate a senior with several years’ experience behind him, while also starting a ninth grader (or sometimes even younger). There was much, much more unity among the student body than there was division, at least compared to most other schools. 

Though I didn’t realize it as much at the time, in retrospect it is clear that the purpose of grade levels like sophomore, junior, and senior at Hammond was more a function of academic progress than much else. Which is why the dynamic at pep rallies always seemed a bit contradictory and out of place. These were real categories, to be sure, and they mattered—but they were so far from embodying the real identities of the students themselves that appealing to them rang false.

They Don’t Fit

That’s how I feel about the imposed categories by Drs. Chapell and Phillips as well. I’m sure that there are pastors, ruling elders, and perhaps even whole congregations that line up tightly and tidily into the categories laid out in those two articles—just as I am confident that some of my Hammond classmates felt a much closer identification with their class-year than I did. But I don’t know many (if any).

Breaking it down a bit, with myself as an example:

  • Dr. Chapell offered a point of division the PCA by broad age categories—which Dr. Phillips questioned, and rightly so. While generational experiences always matter in terms of how we understand our world, my own experience has consistently been that age matters only so much. Meanwhile, I’ve always found great affinity with older ministers and been able to work alongside them easily. Which age demographic do I fit better with, Dr. Chapell?
  • I agree with Dr. Phillips’ assessment of the reasons and need to embrace the “cultural isolation” that Christians are increasingly facing; yet I also agree with Dr. Chapell’s claim (and hope) that there is still a place for “winning a hearing for a credible faith” as a means of influencing, if not the collective culture, then the individual culture-makers that we each encounter. And I’m suspicious of both takes, insofar as they seem to hold cultural change and impact as a metric for the faithfulness of ministry. So which “camp” am I a part of when it comes to culture, Dr. Phillips?
  • It seems that an underlying difference that neither is willing to directly call out is the fundamental, 15-year-old debate (still raging behind the scenes) over “good faith” vs. “full” or “strict” subscription to our theological standards. This is the meta-issue beneath so much of what is discussed in these articles: some members of the PCA believe we opened the door to potential theological liberalism (or “progressivism”), while others believe that the best way forward is down the path we have taken. I’ve blogged about this before and obviously I come down on the side of being in favor of “good faith” subscription; nevertheless, almost all of my own exceptions are matters of “semantic” difference and not theological ones, and would probably pass the smell test for a “full subscription” examination. Still, the “full subscription” folks wouldn’t have me, because I’m open to the idea of “good faith” subscription in general. 
  • Meanwhile, both Dr. Chapell and Dr. Phillips use terms like “progressive” and “confessionalist” (or “traditionalist” as Dr. Chapell has it)—which strike me as false dichotomies. The values attributed to each are not mutually exclusive, and every value deserves a place of emphasis in proper context. Are they simply saying that some of us err in misplacing emphasis at times? We all do that. All of these are highly-charged terms that entrench more than they helpfully qualify. 

To be fair, it is acknowledged (by Dr. Chapell directly, and I assume Dr. Phillips would agree) that these are not universal categories, but that they are common ones. I guess I would openly challenge that premise, recognizing that if that premise fails then the whole argument collapses.

How Does This Help?

One thing they both agree on is that there is a disconcerting degree of factioning in the PCA, and that we are dependent on particular factors (especially external ones) to overcome the divisions marked by these factions. This is not, in fact, the first time that we’ve been told this. At least three times in the past decade I can recall articles or presentations that sought to give a “state of the PCA” description and that essentially boiled us down to how we are divided.

What I keep asking myself is, “How does saying this over and over help the situation?"

I’m not sure that it helps at all. I think it might be hurting things a bit.

A few weeks ago, a few friends on Facebook linked to an article wherein an activist for homosexual civil rights was cited as saying that the ultimate goal of seeking the legalization of “gay marriage” was to obliterate the institution of marriage entirely. These Facebook friends and others were doing the digital equivalent of jumping up and down while pointing and angrily crying out, “You see? I knew it! They all want to destroy marriage!"

On one of those posts, though, a mutual acquaintance who happens to be homosexual commented, “That may be her goal, but it’s not everyone’s goal."

This is an important point that we shouldn’t miss: just because one person avows something, it does not necessarily make them a representative of all the rest of their “category”—even if they say that it does. Even if they are a recognized voice that often speaks for that category. The truth is that people are much more complex than that.

So it is in the PCA too: we hear or read something by someone in another “camp” and we infer conclusions about the whole camp through it. When we do that, our factions become more deeply divided and entrenched in our opposition. We turn against each other more readily and with greater perceived right to do so.

What if that which we are dependent upon to overcome divisions are not external factors but internal ones? What if the way through this as a denomination is to quit focusing so much on what divides?

A Team Sport

The kind of article that Drs. Chapell and Phillips have penned often set the tone for General Assembly—poorly. We read them, then we go in watching for the factions and picking sides. I think that’s a mistake.

In the end, General Assembly should be much like a pep rally (yes, I’m oversimplifying). It’s a chance to hear the voices from the different classes calling out their various cheers, and recognizing where we are different in good-natured ways that nevertheless are overcome by the ultimate unity behind the true goal: our team is in play.

When a team takes the field, every player has a different role. The goalie doesn’t often take shots on the opposing goal; the quarterback doesn’t usually make interceptions; the pitcher doesn’t field fly balls at the fence. They need each other to accomplish the purposes they have been given as a team—together.

Dr. Chapell closed his article saying that he hoped, "the great battle will lead to new levels of graciousness to each other and dependence upon the grace of our Savior.” Dr. Phillips agreed with that hope, but cautioned that his fear is that "the very thing which divides us is our approach to this common enemy, so that it is perhaps more likely that we will pull apart.” But I Corinthians 12:12–27 suggests that both of these statements are missing something: we’re not only dependent upon the grace of our Savior to extend that kind of grace to each other; we are, by the grace of our Savior, also dependent upon each other.

If you follow my analogy above, you’ll see where I’m going with this. Dr. Chapell (who, Dr. Phillips suggested, leans slightly to the “progressive” side) needs Dr. Phillips’ “confessionalist” approach to round out the team. Dr. Phillips needs Dr. Chapell, too. I need my confessionalist friends to check my progressive tendencies, and I need my progressive friends to motivate them. I need my progressive friends to balance out my confessionalism, and my confessional friends to encourage them.

In spite of my wondering about the value of either article, I agree with Dr. Phillips’ final statement as an urging toward this team spirit: “It is essential that we love one another and seek venues in which our personal and pastoral understanding may be increased.” May it be so.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Parenting "advice" and good intentions


“Is your family coming to visit for Thanksgiving?"

I was in a conversation with several others one Sunday when this question was asked. The question was an innocent one, but the receiver literally blanched when it was directed at him. He hemmed and hawed for a moment before explaining why this wasn’t a good idea. 

The main reason? His parents couldn’t keep from constantly offering “advice” and counsel about how he and his wife are raising their children. It has gotten so bad with this guy and his family that the stress from his parents’ constant critique has become a strain on their marriage—so, for the sake of his immediate family’s health, they have chosen to limit their time with in-laws significantly.

These parents are the very model of what author Marshall Shelley described as “well-intentioned dragons” in his book of the same title. Although Shelley was describing people in the church—and how ministers might be prepared for such “dragons” and minister to them more effectively—his description of the situation from the very beginning of the introduction fits perfectly with only the slightest modification: “The community that gathers in the name of [family] is often populated by problem people who make things much, much harder for everyone."

If my experience as a pastor is any indication, I think this is a large and growing problem for the current generation of parents. Before you pass the rolls around the table this season—and deal with all of the relational complexity that comes from the holidays—it may be useful to consider why, and to offer a bit of pastoral advice.

[A quick disclaimer for my own extended family: This post isn’t aimed at anyone, and I timed it intentionally for between the holidays so that it wouldn’t come across as if it was. That said, I think what I have to say applies to just about anyone and everyone…]

Some Background

For starters, let’s think about who we’re talking about. While this problem of well-intentioned dragons can be a sibling or even an older niece or nephew, it is usually a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. This means that, in all likelihood, they are from the Baby Boomer or Silent generation. (If you really want to get your head around generations, their “archetypes,” and how these play out in family and social situations, you have to look into the generational theories of Neil Howe and William Strauss.)

If they are from the Silent generation (born 1925–1942), then they may tend to be highly conventional yet possessing confused morals; expectant of disappointment—and even fatalistic—while having desires for ideals that are either long-dead archetypes or impossible to reach; and often holding out a standard for work, family, culture, and especially retirement that are very different from the world we live in today, yet they firmly believe that everything they experienced could (and should) be attainable for their children and grandchildren. They are also dealing with the internal trauma of feeling the increased loss of control of things around them, both on an individual level (they are aging and facing the realities of retirement, physical and mental frailty, and the death of many of their peers)—and may grasp for every opportunity to exert control where they believe they can.

Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers understand cultural change and even counter-culture in ways that generations before them didn’t (remember, this was the generation that brought us hippies); however, they have also lived their entire adult lives with a kind of entitlement and self-centeredness that was unprecedented before them and hasn’t been seen since. This was and is the “me” generation, and therefore they believe that they remain the driving force behind every activity, event, or decision; they are even more confused morally than the generation before them, yet they consider themselves (individually, not as a generation) to be the standard by which others should be measured; they are optimistic about authority, hierarchy, and tradition—therefore considering their role in the family to be the de facto center. Whereas the Silent generation fears their control is slipping away, the Boomers are utterly confident that they will remain in control until their death (an event which they are still not entirely convinced will actually happen).

This is the generational baggage that parents, aunts, uncles, and many grandparents are bringing to your Thanksgiving table tomorrow! This is not to mention the various issues that may affect the situation further: the parenting models that were—for good or ill—put before them when they were younger; the emotional, psychological, and spiritual struggles and conflicts that have been, or still are, at play in their lives; the circumstances they are in, and how they press upon them (be they trouble at work, strife within their own marriages, being shaken by cultural or world events, etc.).

And let’s not discount the fact that, for several generations now, the transition from “parent-young child” relationships to “parent-adult child” relationships has been a persistently difficult change to navigate. Some parents simply have never learned how to relate to their own children as adults, and so they go on parenting as if their twenty-something or thirty-something (or forty-something) child still needs their approval for every decision, and that they have both the right and the responsibility to correct whatever they deem to be a mistake or error in their child’s judgment. Short of feeling free to bend them over their knee and spank them, nothing has really changed in the parent-child dynamic in so many families.

More Reasons for This Phenomenon

So that’s the background. Now consider what is at work in our culture now, today, and how it affects these family dynamics…

For one thing, we are in an age where there are “experts” all around us, and their so-called expertise is for topics and subjects that are not always academic or matters of certainty. There are dozens of books proclaiming the “right” way to raise children—despite the fact that they often contradict one another blatantly—and hundreds of others who are claiming expertise in parenting because their field abuts the border of this nebulous category of knowledge (read: psychologists, pediatricians, etc.). Whereas parenting was once understood as something that was largely mastered by experience and influenced by the monoculture that they young family existed within, now it is something that we are convinced can be studied and universal truths grasped about it, while the multi-cultural world we live in exerts diverse influences on our thoughts and views on what makes for “good” parenting.

(This, too, is partly an artifact of generational influence—both the Silent and the Boomer generations revere academia and the culture of expertise—but it is also the fruit of changing world philosophies and the expanding sense of global culture that we live within.)

Whereas even a few generations ago there was not enough information about parenting available, today there is such a surfeit of information (and, even more, opinion) about parenting that no one should be any more certain about it than they ever have been. Yet, the tendency is not to look at this objectively and recognize the uncertainty of it all, but to latch onto one or two “experts” and evangelize their views—which, it just so happens, probably line up pretty closely with the even lesser-informed opinions and views that are held by those latching onto them.

The “Truth” about Parenting

There ARE “right” and “wrong” ways to parent. The problem is that the line between them is wide, fuzzy, and gray.

An analogy (one I’ve used before) may help here: to say that someone is “middle class” means very little objectively. It might mean that, most months, all of the bills get paid on time and no one misses meals if they don’t want to; or it may indicate that the big decision next year is whether to buy a boat or that time-share you’ve been looking into. Usually, simply saying someone is “middle class” means either, “Not as poor as so-and-so” or “Not as rich as so-and-so.” It is a term of comparison.

Apart from the clear “right” or “wrong” categories of parenting (and even here there seems to be some soft edges), parenting advice is much like this. It may be a little good but mostly bad, or it may be a little bad but mostly good.

The Bible helps us with the “right” and “wrong” categories. Careful attention to biblical principles on parenting, ethics and morality, character development and sanctification, and love will firm up the softer edges of right and wrong when it comes to parenting.

However, God did not see fit to provide a parenting manual (as we think of one, at any rate) within the realm of Scripture. Rather, God demonstrates that there are some good parents who do well with some children and poorly with others, and some bad parents for whom some kids still turned out alright. And even these are examples, and not normative in their form or presentation.

Therefore, we have to recognize that no parenting strategy, system, or set of principles will be both explicit and also biblical. Any of them will invariably venture into speculation, opinion, and/or matters of experience. (And since one parent’s experience is inevitably different from another’s, even the most experienced parent can offer only so much counsel and wisdom to another.) We have to hold these things loosely.

What to Do: If You’re the “Dragon"

Some of this—maybe a lot of it—hits pretty close to home for some readers. Maybe this is you exactly, and you don’t even realize it. Here’s a diagnostic: if you’re related to parents (of children any age up through adulthood) and you offer unsolicited advice with any frequency, you probably are falling into the category of “well-intentioned dragon” for them. Of course, I can’t comment how much this bothers them; it may roll right off their backs, or it might be creating trauma in their marriage! (Or anywhere in-between.)

What can you do? Here are some suggestions:

  • First and foremost, please care about this. The chances are good that at very least, whether you realize it or not, you are damaging your relationship with your child (or grandchild, nephew, niece, cousin, sibling, etc.—insert relationship for the parent in question here). There may be more damage than you are aware of (witness the guy I mentioned in the introductory paragraphs), but you should care about this for no other reason than the self-preservation of whatever relationship you have with your relative: if you want to be a welcomed, healthy presence in their lives—and I assume that you do, since you are “well-intentioned”—then you should take note of what I am saying.
  • Next, recognize that you don’t understand the situation like the actual parents do. If their kid is rebellious, overly quiet, disobedient, overly obedient, or whatever pathology you are sure you have identified, it can be way too easy to assume that you have fully comprehended the situation. I can tell you this with certainty: unless you have lived with this family for more than a year, then you do not understand all of the dynamics. Maybe it has been long enough that you forget how drastically the behaviors, attitudes, and life patterns change when there is company in the house—even, or especially, family. In 95% of contemporary households, there is almost no chance that you have succeeded at being the normal presence in the kid’s life that you would need to be to observe him/her in their normal, natural life patterns.
  • Also, you need to realize how condescending your input may sound. It probably comes across as if you are either a know-it-all or an over-simplistic naif if you come up with “have you tried doing x?” or “all you need to do is…” Here again, you are coming into a situation that these parents live with every day and probably have spent hours, if not cumulative days, trying to deal with. It’s not possible that a one-sentence solution is the answer to the whole problem, or even part of it. (If they don’t outright roll their eyes, it’s because they are striving hard to obey the fifth commandment.)
  • Please, also: watch it with the passive-aggression. You know what I mean: instead of telling your relative what you think they ought to be doing, you’ll drop “hints” by posting articles on their Facebook page or buying them a subscription to a parenting magazine. (Congratulations: now you have crossed the line from merely butting in to butting in and lying about it!) Assuming a passive-aggressive stance is deceitful, untrusting, condescending, AND even more damaging to a relationship than a direct approach—and the even worse news for you is that it doesn’t even work: healthy people often just delete the e-mails and throw out the magazines, regarding your advice as even less valuable each time they do.
  • Finally, wait until you are asked to weigh in. You successfully raised a child of your own, and possibly more than one! Chances are good that you probably do have some good wisdom to share—though it is probably more from your own experience as a parent than from some book or website that you visited. Your family members know this, and it’s likely that they have a lot of respect for it. When they are ready—and when they recognize that your experience has real relevance to the situation(s) they are dealing with—they will ask you for advice. This is really what you want, not just because you are itching to share your thoughts but also because now they are ready to truly listen to you and take your counsel to heart. This is one of those times where the hard work of waiting will pay big dividends, both in your relationship with them and in your own sense of personal satisfaction.
These are hard truths to read, I know. You want to be helpful, and your intentions genuinely are good ones; you see someone you love struggling, and you want to help. This is where you need to trust me (as a pastor AND a parent): these things are not helping, they are hurting. You need to be confronted with the hard truths about the damage you are doing to your relationship, and possibly further than that.

What to Do: If You’re the One under Fire

If this has hit close to home for you, as well, then you probably don’t need a diagnostic. In case you do, consider this: if the anticipation of Thanksgiving (or any other family-oriented holiday) causes you to experience any feelings other than love, nostalgia, and hospitality, then you probably need to read on and take at least one or two of these ideas to heart.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with well-intentioned dragon family members in a more healthy way:

  • You also need to care about this. You may not realize how much the dynamics of your family relationship are unhealthy and even damaging. We all grow up assuming that our family is normal, and those other families are the weird ones; this can continue well into adulthood, even when a spouse and our own children are introduced into the mix. It’s not wrong to long for unhealthy aspects of relationships to be different, and if you struggle to allow yourself to care that may be a good sign that this has a deeper hold on your than you realize.
  • Also, you need to be attentive to how this affects the others in your immediate family. Hopefully, you already have your finger on the pulse of your marriage enough to recognize how difficult it may be for your spouse to be with certain members of your family; if not, then ask him/her outright! (But be prepared to hear an answer that could make you feel like you are being forced to choose between your spouse and your parent/grandparent/etc. And here’s another thing to be prepared for: you already made that choice when you committed to your spouse in marriage.) You might be able to shrug off the nagging critique of your parenting, but it could really get under the skin of your spouse. It may also be affecting your children in ways that aren’t immediately apparent; at very least, it is teaching them about the way that their parents relate to other adults in the extended family, probably in ways that you wish they would not learn.
  • Beware of “co-dependency” in your relationship(s) with extended family. “Co-dependency” is when a (dysfunctional) relationship enables you—or someone else—to remain in a state of immaturity or irresponsibility. If you find that “it’s just easier” to go along with the unsolicited advice you’re given from a well-intentioned dragon than to find your own way, you may very well have a co-dependent relationship with that dragon. That’s not good! It needs to change, for your health and for the health of your family.
  • Also beware of “triangling” in relationships. This is a lesser-known problem, but can be equally as damaging. Relational triangling (the unhealthy kind) is when a third person is a necessary presence for the relationship to exist or advance in the way that one member wants or needs it to. An example would be: father has strong opinion about adult daughter’s parenting style, and suggests to son/brother that he needs to encourage sister/daughter to change in a certain way. (This can be a form of passive-aggression, but it can also take other forms.) Triangling gets a little tricky in a marriage, because the husband and wife are “one flesh” and therefore can function healthily as a relational unit—but often it can be unhealthy, even when the third part of the triangle is the spouse to the second member of it. Some extended families have all kinds of triangles, and the family members rarely deal directly with relational matters. Start moving away from these immediately!
  • Don’t be afraid to say “no” to unsolicited advice. If the well-intentioned dragon in your family give you the opportunity, simply decline their advice! Maybe they lead in with, “Can I make an observation about so-and-so and her behavior?” Don’t be slow to respond, “No thank you—we’re dealing with it in the way that we believe is best.” Even if they don’t give you such an easy “out” then you can find ways to politely refuse; whether it is, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but we are already well-sourced with information about how to address this,” or, “You know, I have so many articles I want to read as it is; you can stop posting those parenting columns to my Facebook,” one of the best ways to deal with a well-intentioned dragon in the family is to address their advice and critique with a polite but firm comment that will make it clear that it is unwelcome.
  • Above all else, protect your family. Your marriage and your children are your first priority in the grand scheme of family relationships. Lay down some boundaries for your extended family if the polite refusal (above) doesn’t work; make it clear to them that, unless you’ve asked for it, their input about your parenting is not welcomed. If, after that, protecting them means that you need to spend the holidays apart from certain relatives, you should do that. This is a hard choice, but it is the right one. (And if you make this choice, don’t believe it if other family members offer you the lie that says, “You’re keeping the rest of us from enjoying the holidays by refusing to come.” YOU aren’t the one keeping them from that—your unhealthy, well-intentioned dragon family member is.)

 A counselor I saw once used this analogy: when a damaging, unhealthy family member presents themselves to you, it is as if they are coming to your doorstep with muddy shoes. The healthy response is to say to them: “We have worked hard to clean the floors in our house; you are welcome to come in, but you need to take off your dirty shoes and leave them at the door.” If they do it, then welcome them in and engage them honestly and earnestly in the relationship that you have with them; if they refuse, then simply say, “Okay—we would love for you to come in, but we can’t have you inside with your muddy shoes; it’s your choice."

It’s hard to make that “leave and cleave” break from relating to parents, siblings, etc. as your immediate family to relating to them as extended family. Once you are married, however, that break must happen—and the struggle of a well-intentioned dragon family member offering unsolicited counsel for your parenting choices is a perfect illustration of why.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve read this far, you probably really do care about the well-being of your child/relative and their circumstances. Given that, let me broaden this out a bit more: “parenting” in this post is simply a microcosm for a more general harmful and sinful attitude toward others. 

Maybe you don’t offer any unsolicited advice on parenting to your family members; they may not even have children. But maybe you’re guilty of being the same kind of “well-intentioned dragon” about another issue: work, health, appearance, lifestyle choices, weight, dating, financial matters—all of these are potential candidates for the same sort of damaging intrusion that unsolicited input from well-intentioned dragons too often is. 

Check yourself: are you “butting in” where you don’t have a right to? One way to diagnose this is simply to ask, “Would I say this to a peer?” (Sometimes even that’s not enough, and hopefully if you’re the kind of person that speaks up too frequently in unwelcome ways then you know that by now, and have learned to keep it under control.)

Paying attention to this is, in my pastoral assessment, probably the biggest—and hardest—step in forging a healthy relationship with a relative as they move through the varying stages of life and adulthood. Your child (sibling, niece, etc.) does NOT have to think, feel, or act like you in order to be someone who loves you and whom you love well. Please, for your sake and theirs, stop trying to make them do so.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Changing cameras (again)


While it seldom factors into my actual pastoral work, I’ve been a photographer for around thirty years now—starting when, at the age of 12, my father gave me a neglected Canon AV-1 kit that was laying around his office. “The others say it doesn’t work,” he told me. “But if you can get it to work, you can have it.” It worked fine for me, and I shot many a photo (including a number of them published in the school newspaper and yearbooks) with that camera.

Dad, however, was a Minolta guy at the time, and in high school I switched to a Minolta X-700 so that I could take advantage of his extensive and growing lens collection. Later—in my 20s—I switched again, for a while shooting a Pentax ME Super, then settling in on Nikons for a long while: first an F3, then an N90s (a system which I shot for the better part of a decade). In 2005 I finally switched to digital, and found that Nikon’s D100 was a good (if already somewhat dated) analogue to my beloved N90s system—and it accepted the same lenses I already had, so that was a plus.

At a mere 6 megapixels, however, the life of the D100 was limited; in the late 2000s, I sold it for what little bit I could get (relative to the price I paid for it), and for what seems like a good while now we have had only a “point-and-shoot” Nikon—a CoolPix P7000, really a very good little camera—and our iPhones for capturing photos of any sort. 

Through the years, by the way, I’ve also shot with varying other systems; dad had a complete Bronica ETR medium format system in his studio, as well as a Toyo 4x5 view camera—both of which I used extensively. I picked up a Bronica system of my own in my 20s, this time the ETRSi (I had an ETRS backup. I sold that system before seminary, but then I got a couple of other medium format systems in my 30s: first, a Kiev (a Russian knock-off of the basic Hasselblad 500), then a Mamiya M645. I really liked the Mamiya system, but the one I had left me zero upgrade path to digital, so I sold it for pennies a few years ago. And I got a Crown Graphic 4x5 press camera in the early 2000s, which I still have (and it still works) but I never shoot it. It’s just too expensive to shoot film anymore, unless you have a full wet darkroom set up (which I did in seminary, but had not been able to set up again since—so that gear got sold last spring in a yard sale).

My biggest regret of cameras that I’ve owned and sold was a Zeiss-Ikon Super Ikonta C (pictured above), a 6x9cm viewfinder medium format camera that I got for a song. It worked, and the lens was super-sharp—plus it looked awesome on display on a bookshelf. I sold it for far less than it was worth (though I didn’t know it at the time), and now these things go for hundreds more than I would put into a camera that I would shoot only occasionally as a novelty. Alas.

All of this is building up to an announcement, of sorts, that I’ve scrounged together some cash given to me for birthdays, etc. and bought another camera. I’ve been reading about the “micro four-thirds” format and system for a few years, and have been very interested; it seems like a perfect medium ground for me: small size cameras and high portability, yet with a wide range of interchangeable lenses available and camera bodies ranging from the most simple and consumer-friendly to ones with near-pro (or some would argue fully professional) capabilities. They all allow full manual exposure and focusing, and the sensors, while much smaller than a full digital “SLR” camera (like the Nikon D series), turn out really fantastic images. An interesting thing, too, is that the µ4/3 system is the result of an agreement or partnership of several manufacturers—including Olympus, Panasonic, Kodak, and others—so there are a wider array of lenses for the system than for many systems from major manufacturers. (Thus, an Olympus lens will work on a Panasonic camera, etc.)


And so I picked up a used, 2011 model from Panasonic, the Lumix GF3. So far I’m still getting to know it, but I really like what I see. I haven’t made any prints from it yet, but the images I’ve taken look very good on the screen; I’ll post an example or two once I actually have something that feels like more than just playing around and getting familiar with my equipment. 

I’m really delighted to be re-engaging with more serious photography. I think it will give me a welcome aside from the other endeavors I have in front of me, and perhaps I can make some art that others will enjoy, as well. As I go through the coming months, I’ll post more about photography and my reflections on it.

And now that Jack is 12, maybe it’s time for him to get more fully introduced to photography as well! He was just talking about wanting a camera the other day… maybe sometime in the next year I’ll get him started, just like my dad did with me.

Monday, November 24, 2014

How Grand Juries Work

In 2013, I was called to serve on a federal grand jury for one of the Arizona districts. This meant that I was called upon by the government to appear every other week for one year, unless circumstantially hindered, each time for a full day of hearing cases. As a consequence of my service on a grand jury, I find myself informed and understanding of circumstances related to recent events in ways that many of my family and friends are not. I thought it would be worth some time to reflect a bit on how grand juries work.

How a grand jury is formed

Grand juries are called by random selection, like normal juries. When I was called, I was one of more than 40 people who appeared; from the 40 of us, 22 jurors and 10 alternates were chosen, again at random. There were a few who were asked to serve and were dismissed because of a hardship (in one case, the woman was the primary caregiver for an aging parent and could not afford to be gone every other week) or circumstance (in another case, the potential juror worked for a law firm which sometimes represented federal cases, and it was deemed a conflict of interest). No one was dismissed because of their profession, age, gender, political views, race/ethnicity, or for any other subjective reason. 

Obviously different grand juries are constituted of different numbers of people (the grand jury in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO was a twelve-member jury)—in my grand jury, the minimum number of jurors to constitute a quorum was 17. But grand jury members are not picked in the way that a lot of people think of juries being chosen by the attorneys, where the jurors are selected based on a hoped-for outcome.

The duties of a grand jury

Grand juries are brought cases in the form of “proposed bills of indictment”—that is, a case is made that a crime has been committed, and the evidence in support of that case is presented. Then the grand jury must decide whether a crime has, in fact, been committed, and if so then whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial charging the person or persons named with the crime. If the grand jury determines that both are true of a case, then they submit a “true bill of indictment”—and if not, then they submit a declaration of “no true bill."

A grand jury may take as long as they like to determine whether or not there is a true bill; however, they are dependent, to a degree, on the prosecuting attorneys (whether they be district attorneys, state’s attorneys, or U.S. attorneys) to present the case and all of the relevant evidence pertaining to it. In other words, while a grand jury has the power to subpoena evidence or witnesses of its own accord, the members of the grand jury wouldn't know how or what to subpoena apart from the facts of the case offered to them by the prosecutors. In my experience, the extent to which the attorney was able to lay out a thorough, well-evidenced case was often the difference between whether the indictment was clear or whether it was up for debate.

Once a case has been presented, the members of the jury may deliberate about the case before voting on its outcome. They may amend the charges presented on the proposed bill and vote for the amended charges, or they can vote it up or down as-is. A majority of a certain number of jurors is required for the indictment to be voted a true bill; for the grand jury I sat on, it was a two-thirds majority of the quorum (which meant a minimum of 12 votes in favor were required). 

How a grand jury works

Before any case can come before a grand jury, the members of the jury must be instructed on the laws that govern the crimes in question. With the grand jury I served on, we saw a number of cases that were similar in nature (being southern Arizona, it may not surprise you to know that we saw a lot of immigration and smuggling-related cases), so we became pretty familiar with the laws about these kinds of crimes. But most weeks there was something new, and we would receive new instruction. The grand jury may ask questions of the attorney(s) who are instructing them, until everyone is satisfied that they understand the laws that are relevant to the proposed indictments.

Next, the case is presented. At minimum, this will involve an attorney interviewing a law enforcement officer who is familiar with the facts of the case; it may include more than one officer, other witnesses, and/or the presentation of other evidence. The grand jury may examine the evidence as much as they wish, and they may ask questions of the officers and/or witnesses. There is no judge present to preside over the proceedings; instead, a foreperson leads the jury proceedings both during the presentation of the facts of the case and in the deliberations. Once all of the facts are presented and questions asked of the witnesses, then the jury may also ask further questions about the law of the attorney(s).

Having completed the gathering of all of the information that they can, then the grand jury goes into deliberation—meaning, they will discuss, debate, and sometimes argue about whether a crime was committed or whether there is sufficient evidence that this person committed it. During this time, the attorneys and the stenographer leave the room and only jurors are allowed to be present. Deliberation may take as long as the jury needs, after which they vote. 

When all of the cases before a grand jury have been presented and voted upon, the foreperson takes all of the proposed indictments before a judge and testifies under oath about the findings of the grand jury, presenting the true bills and the no true bills accordingly.

The role of the attorneys

The attorneys play a crucial and central role in the grand jury process. Not only do they present each case and all of the facts related to it, but they are also the guides and teachers of the grand jury with regard to the law itself and what constitutes a crime under it. 

In my experience, these attorneys wield this power with great trepidation. First of all, everyone I encountered, from top to bottom, in the grand jury system exuded a sense of respect and even reverence for the importance of the grand jury process; they did not take for granted a single piece of it, even when we were on the 18th immigration case of the day (which was almost exactly like the other 17 cases). Not only so, but they regularly reminded us—the jurors—of the gravity of each case and of the process as a whole. Every case mattered, because every case was about someone and their standing before the courts.

Secondly, they were also aware that the proceedings of the grand jury would be the basis upon which any future trial would stand or fall—so they were vigilant to protect their cases from even a suggestion of mishandling. For example, if a juror asked a question about a matter that was irrelevant to the facts of the case (and perhaps could be seen as prejudicial), they would instruct the witness not to answer the question. They knew that they would be accountable for the outcome of the grand jury proceedings, and they didn’t take that lightly.

The difference between justice (according to a legal system) and ethics

All in all, my experience on a grand jury served to give me a greater appreciation for the justice system and how it works, and for how much those involved in the system took it seriously and treated it with respect. It made me trust the system more, and to feel more at ease that, insofar as our system allows, “justice" according to the law is served—even in a case like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Those members of the grand jury who have seen all of the evidence and heard all of the testimony know better than I do about whether a crime was committed.

What I also saw, and what comes to mind again tonight after the Ferguson grand jury returned “no true bill,” is that there is often a gap between “justice"—according to our judicial system—and ethics. There were times when, as a member of the grand jury, I had to vote in favor of an indictment because, according to the law, a crime had been committed; nevertheless, I was equally convinced that it was a waste of time, money, and other resources (not to mention a life-changing matter for the indictee) to prosecute the crime that was before us.

Likewise, even though I trust the system that returned no true bill against officer Darren Wilson, I cannot help but believe that his actions were unethical. And that leaves me wondering: what is broken in the whole of it all? Is it the legal and judicial system? Is it the law itself?

In the end, my theology and my instincts tell me that the problem isn’t so simple or so singular as either of those. Rather, the problem is the fallenness of humankind—so it’s me. And it’s you. But it may be more me than you—because I’m a part of white, middle-class culture that accepts privilege and ignores racial sin and can turn off the TV when we’re tired or overwhelmed or frustrated with the news about grand jury returns and the reactions to them. I haven’t spent much time in Ferguson, but I still have a part in what led to both the shooting of an unarmed teenager and the riotous reactions to it. And I need to confess that, as do all of us who are part of the corporate racial sins of our culture.

Don’t blame the grand jury. Blame me. Blame us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting ready for Thanksgiving: Turkey Edition

If your household is like many (most?) American homes, you are starting to think of plans for Thanksgiving, which is next Thursday. Maybe you are going to a friend’s or family member’s home, and they are doing the heavy-lifting. If you’re the one responsible for the bird and most of the rest of the meal, though, then read on to learn from my experiences in preparing a dozen or so Thanksgiving dinners.

Let’s talk turkey

If you’re buying a bird, here’s what you don’t even know that you want: a fresh one. This means that it has never been stored at temperatures below 26°f (which is apparently the approximate temperature that a turkey freezes—so fresh turkeys are right at the threshold of frozen). These kinds of turkeys are always better-tasting, and they are usually better for you too; that’s because fresh turkeys are often raised without steroids or growth hormones, and sometimes they are raised in a more “free-range” way. Note: this isn’t the least-expensive kind of turkey to get, but you should be able to find one for a fair and reasonable price. Because of the way it is stored, you will obviously need to get your turkey much closer to Thanksgiving Day; stores that sell them typically accept orders and you pick them up on the Tuesday or Wednesday before.

Okay, now the next thing you don’t know that you want: get one that is not “pre-basted.” So-called pre-basted turkeys are injected with saline solution. What’s the big deal about that? Well, two things: first, the pre-basting injections are sometimes poorly done, and they are usually insufficient to really achieve the goal of pre-basting (which is to keep the meat moist at all costs). Second, it creates problems with a future step (more below).

“But wait!” you say. “Won’t that mean that my turkey will dry out?"

Not at all—IF you follow the rest of my advice. If I’ve lost you, or if I lose you below, then go ahead and get the bird that was injected with a saline solution at some point in the unknown past.

But if you really want the juiciest, most delicious turkey you can have, I’m happy to share with you all that I’ve learned.

What you do with the bird, part 1

Next up: brining. This is an interesting category of cooking, because some cooks (especially pros, but many amateurs as well) know all about this, while others have never heard of it. The idea of brining is to soak the entire bird in a “brine” (which is, at very least, water and salt—yes, a saline solution—but can also include a variety of other things) for a certain length of time, based generally on the concentration of the ingredients in the brine and the weight of the bird. (Note: you can brine ANY meat; I find brining my pork roasts before smoking them for pulled pork is excellent… but that’s another post.)

To brine your turkey, you need some sort of vessel large enough to submerge the turkey entirely in water. A large cooler will do, though I’ve found that a food-grade bucket is a better option. I bought a 4-gallon bucket with a lid from a restaurant supply store years ago, and it is perfect; it cost me about $20, and it will fit in the bottom of a refrigerator (with a shelf or two removed), or sit in a large cooler with ice around it. This is key, because while that turkey is sitting in the water, you still need to keep it cold (and safe—so just sitting it outside in a very cold climate may serve in lieu of refrigeration, but it also might invite curious neighborhood animals).

I brine my turkeys with salt, water, and sometimes some whole sprigs of fresh herbs. If you do the herb thing, you need (a) to adjust the concentration of salt for a longer brining time, and (b) a LOT of herbs. Just a few sprigs for a few hours will mean that the herbs were wasted—it’s just not long enough for their oils and flavoring to go anywhere. You need to really soak them.

The “normal” brine ratio is 1 cup of salt for every gallon of water; this means that you will need to brine an average-sized Thanksgiving bird (in the 12–16 pound range) for 4 to 6 hours. The problem is, if you do it this way you’ll be getting up in the middle of the night, either to put the bird in the brine or to take it out! So what I do instead is cut the salt in half, and double the time. Then I can set it to brining at 8 or 9 the night before Thanksgiving, and it will be ready to come out of the brine early the next morning (when I’m ready to put it in the oven).

Once it is done brining, take it out of the brine and dry the whole bird completely (paper towels are great for this).

[If you want to read more about brining turkeys, check these two articles: “The Quick and Dirty Guide to Brining Chicken or Turkey” from Serious Eats, and “How to Brine a Turkey” from The Splendid Table.]

What you do with the bird, part 2

Next up: preparing and seasoning the bird for roasting. (Note: if you’re grilling, smoking, or deep-frying your turkey, you’ll need to look elsewhere for advice from this stage forward; I just don’t have much experience with any of those—though I will vouch for brining the bird before grilling or smoking as a key for a moist turkey.)

After you pull the turkey out of the brine and dry it off, the next thing is to season it. The first thing I do to season the turkey is cover it in melted butter; I usually melt a half-stick or so in the microwave, and use a silicone brush to apply it all over, inside and out. The butter serves three purposes: first, it gives the seasoning something to “cling” to; second, it lends a great complementary flavor (there’s a reason why a popular brand is “Butterball”); and third, it helps the skin/outside of the turkey achieve a beautiful golden-brown color.

Next for seasoning is salt and pepper. No need to overdo it here, especially on the salt, as the brine will have given a nice amount of salty flavor to the meat. But go ahead and give a moderate coating of each.

After salt and pepper, apply other seasonings that you prefer. If you’re at a loss for which ones to choose, here’s a tip about poultry in general: it’s always safe to take them to Scarborough Fair. In other words: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are a wonderful combination for seasoning poultry. Want more than that? Check out Penzey’s Spices; they have an awesome Poultry Blend that will really fix a turkey up. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, Kenji López-Alt has a great recipe for an herb butter to coat your bird in over at Serious Eats.

How about what goes INSIDE the bird? You have this great cavity (two cavities, actually—be sure to remove the giblet bag from your bird at some point before or at this stage!) that you can put more stuff in. This is where the dressing can go, which (by definition) is when it officially becomes “stuffing.” Instead of stuffing, though, I prefer to cut up an onion or two, some carrots, a little celery, and a few sprigs of fresh parsley and rosemary, and fill the cavities with these. They will flavor the turkey as well, and you can serve them as an additional dish alongside the bird—OR, you can save them for later, as I do.

What you do with the bird, part 3

Now it’s time to prepare the turkey for the oven. I like to roast my bird traditionally, so my advice will follow that path. If you’re spatchcocking your turkey, now is when you should seek input elsewhere (I recommend this piece at Serious Eats for starters).

I always truss my turkey; this is when you tie the bird with kitchen twine so that it holds a certain shape (which it will maintain without the twine, once it is cooked). I know there is a debate over whether trussing is good or bad, but I’ve had good results from a trussed bird. In my view, it helps the different parts be well-positioned for even cooking. There are good instructions for trussing at the Williams-Sonoma website (but I always follow the guide in my well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking). I also use some kitchen twine to make a few stitches that hold in the carrots, celery, onions, etc. that are in the cavities of the turkey; this keeps them out of the bottom of my roasting pan.

Now, as for roasting pans: If you absolutely must, you can get away with a disposable aluminum foil one from the supermarket; they are flimsy, and can be dangerous, but they will do when there is no alternative. (If you DO use one of these foil fellows, set it in a shallow jelly-roll style cookie sheet for more stability.) I recommend that you use a real, heavy-duty roasting pan with handles, a rack, and so forth. This is, at very least, because you’ll actually be taking the turkey out of the oven more than once, and the foil pans won’t hold up to much movement. (The Splendid Table did a great short piece on what defines the quality of a roasting pan.)

This is one of my favorite “secrets” for Thanksgiving turkeys: put the turkey into the roasting pan upside-down—that is, with the breasts on the rack, and the legs and thighs facing up. Why? Because the dark meat must cook to a higher temperature than the light meat, and positioning the turkey this way puts the dark meat closer to the heat. When there’s about 30–45 minutes left to roast it, you can turn the bird over (I use some poultry lifters like these) and it will brown up nicely on the breast side, for presentations’ sake. (One more excellent turkey roasting tip scored from The Joy of Cooking.

There should be a generous amount of liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan, along with some fattier chunks and drippings. These are great for basting, which can be done with the old bulb-baster—but a large spoon works just as well (maybe better). Once the turkey is done, don’t discard these drippings! Instead, save them for gravy. (More on this below.)

Once the turkey reaches temperature (155–160 degrees for light meat; 170–180 degrees for thighs and legs), let it “rest” on the rack, outside of the oven, for about 10 minutes (or until the temperature has dropped about 5 degrees). THEN it is ready to carve.

Good Gravy

My mother and grandmother always made flour gravy, and it was what I grew up with. I still love it, but I admit that it is not easy to make. I’ve done it a few times, with some success, but I have become a convert to cornstarch gravy in more recent years. It’s darker in color, thickens a little faster and more evenly, has a less distinctive taste of its own, and has the added benefit of not being gluten-based.

The key with cornstarch gravy (and I’m pretty sure this works with flour gravy too) is to mix it with cold water until it is a slurry, rather than pouring it straight into the hot liquid. This will avoid the lumps that are so unappetizing in gravy, and help it to thicken quickly and evenly.

Gather your drippings from the bottom of the roasting pan (if you have a heavy roasting pan, you can even make the gravy right in the pan) into a heavy skillet or dutch oven. I like a dutch oven, because I can whisk vigorously and it won’t slosh out! Skim out the fat as much as you can, so that the gravy won’t be greasy. Set the skillet or dutch oven on a large stove eye on high heat.

Let the drippings boil down until it is almost syrupy in consistency. Add 3–4 cups of chicken broth, and bring this to a boil, then reduce to simmering—stirring frequently—until it is reduced to 2–3 cups of liquid. 

Now add 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (or flour) to a half-cup of cold water, and beat with a fork until the cornstarch is completely dissolved in the water. Slowly whisk this into the simmering pan of liquid. Keep whisking and simmering it until it is thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. Season to taste (it may need a little salt, and don’t underestimate the benefit of some black pepper to really liven up a gravy).

What about Leftovers?

In many households, a fair-sized Thanksgiving turkey will yield more leftovers than you may wish to eat as straight sandwiches or re-heated plates. What to do with all that turkey?

In our house, I usually pick the turkey carcass over on Thanksgiving evening, cleaning it of the leftover meat as much as I can. I divide this into two groups: slices and chunks for sandwiches and plates, and smaller bits for soup and other dishes.

Then I put the picked turkey carcass into a large stock pan, covered with water, and boil it for an hour or more. This will create a rich stock. I pull about three cups of this stock out, and to the rest of it I add 2 cups of the smaller pieces of turkey, ¾ cup of white rice, and the carrots, celery, and onions that were stuffed into the turkey earlier. This will cook up to a nice soup that it a hit with our family.

I also prepare a large batch of creamed turkey (following the recipe in The Joy of Cooking), from which I can make a turkey pot pie (adding some peas, diced carrots, and diced new potatoes and covering with a frozen pie crust) and/or a turkey casserole (adding some cooked white rice and sautéed mushrooms, and covering with a mixture of breadcrumbs, grated parmesan cheese, and butter for a crust).

And that’s what we do with Thanksgiving turkey in the Eubanks house! What do you to at your house?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The city wants to read your sermons; why are you saying no?


If you are (a) a Christian, and (b) on any social media platform, then you probably read that the city of Houston is demanding that pastors “hand over” transcripts of their sermons to city hall! Or something terrible-sounding like that. If your feeds are like mine, this news may have been accompanied by appeals to first amendment rights, discussions about pastors preaching boldly in the face of persecution, and so on.

The hyperbole I offered above is not exactly what happened, but something did, indeed, go down in Houston this week that should make pastors and other Christians take notice. And maybe rejoice.

The Background

Houston mayor Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors in the U.S. (that’s relevant, as you'll see), signed a bill into law on May 28 of this year (2014) called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. According to the Houston Chronicle, the ordinance can be summarized as such:

The measure bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions would be exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

The law itself was controversial from the start, not least because it offered a sweeping ban of “anti-gay” discrimination, and because originally it contained language (later removed, but said by city officials to still be implied in the substance of the law) that stipulated that those who identify themselves as transgender could choose which bathroom they wanted to use—men’s or women’s. Attempts to appeal the ordinance have failed. 

The responses of Christians have made headlines, as well. Beside protests, one group of Christians, which included two pastors, sued the city; those pastors and others are also said to have openly preached about and against this ordinance. 

On the heels of that lawsuit, city attorneys issued subpoenas for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” (ref: Houston Chronicle). And thus, the big stir on Fox News, Facebook, and elsewhere about how the city government is trying to control what pastors in Houston preach.

It should be noted, too, that Mayor Parker and the city council have tried to put distance between themselves and the subpoenas, and Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has called for the city to rescind them. This was clearly too hot a potato for even the most daring of city politicians to handle for long.

(By the way, tip o’ the hat to my Facebook friend Sarah Pulliam Bailey, whose coverage of this issue through Religion News Service has been stellar.)

Inconsistency & Problems (mostly not the subpoena kind)

Surely, if the city was, in fact seeking to control what the pastors of Houston—or even a select few pastors—are allowed to preach, that is problematic. First amendment rights do indeed apply, with respect to both freedoms of speech and the free exercise of religion. I’ve pointed out before that the suppression of freedom of speech for some other group eventually means potential threat to that freedom for your group! That’s to say nothing of questions like, “How would they enforce it?” and “Should(n’t) pastors be willing to preach with integrity, even in the face of legal consequences?"

And, while sometimes Christians may think they are being “persecuted” when they are not, such an act would, indeed, be persecution (if mild compared to some incidences). Beyond that, it would violate the very terms of the ordinance, by discriminating against others on a religious basis. But there is no evidence that this is anything more than an attempt at overreaching for information and evidence regarding the suit filed against the city. At any rate, a grand jury would have to approve of the sermons being evidential, and some, such as Texas College of Law professor Charles Rhodes have speculated that the bar may be too high for the grand jury to approve them (ref: Houston Chronicle).

What is equally as striking as the legal/political ramifications is the inconsistency of pastors on the matter. I’ve read comments from dozens of pastors who are incensed, even outraged, at the nerve of the city to require that these ministers provide copies of their sermons. Some have suggested that they would refuse, and that the Houston pastors should as well. (One Houston pastor, at least, has said the opposite: that he would gladly deliver his sermons to city hall in person.)

The irony of those who decry is that many of these are men whose churches publish their sermons every week in video, audio, and/or transcript, and that it doesn’t require a subpoena or anything more than a decent internet connection to get them. They, and their congregations, often portray these published messages as a means of outreach; after all, who knows whether some unbeliever might not be surfing the web, come across a sermon, and actually read or listen to it? And I suspect that some of these pastors monitor their views and downloads with a zeal that would be troubling to their fellow leaders, and that they find much of their confidence and identity in how many people are listening to their podcasts.

Which is it? Do we want anyone, including those outside of the church, to read, listen to, or watch our sermons? Or do we want to keep them fire-walled from the world, and only for the ears of those who show up on Sundays? (And what happens if a city attorney comes and starts to make notes—do we have the ushers escort him out, since he is not a member?)


These Houston pastors should instead see this as an opportunity. These city officials—perhaps including the mayor herself—are asking to read their sermons! Does this seem inconsistent with the call to preaching? It does to me.

The preaching of the Word of God should always be something that is done boldly, confidently, and without reservation. Furthermore, it should be something that, while crafted for believers, is pastoral and clear even to unbelievers, who should be able to hear the grace and invitation of the gospel and respond accordingly (even if their response is a hardened heart). Why would any preacher not want his sermons to be published and read by the city officials?


That is, unless these sermons are not so gospel-driven. If they are filled with the kind of hate that has come to define Christianity for much of the secular world (see: Westboro Baptist Church), it would be totally understandable that those pastors might not want the civic leaders, or the courts, to read their words. If the pastors in question are unconcerned with the planks in their own eyes (and, full disclaimer here: I have no idea what those pastors have or have not preached, so I’m not accusing them of anything), it’s possible that they have good reason to be fearful instead of bold. But we need to ask: is that really faithful preaching, anyway?

I think this is an opportunity. Consider a few of the things this suggests:

  • It shows that the public still sees Christian sermons as relevant and important
  • It demonstrates that God might use the most unexpected ways to get His Word before those who need it
  • It offers a chance to face challenges in a manner consistent with the gospel itself, and with the ways that the New Testament apostles and preachers modeled for us

What If...

Imagine a church—maybe in Houston—that made it clear that all who would come are welcome, without qualification. That opened its doors wide to the LGBT+ population. That ensured that privacy in bathrooms was sufficient that no one would feel uncertain—even a transgender person. That embraced visitors of all kinds.

AND imagine that this church preached the Word faithfully, not qualifying away or dismissing any part. That the preaching exposed the sin of everyone present, gay and straight, including the pastor and leaders. That it preached about all sin, not just the prominent or sexual ones. And that this sin was met with gracious, humble, and gentle hope that is found only in Christ. That there was true accountability, but accountability which took into account that everyone—believer and unbeliever alike—is in a different place, and that the Holy Spirit works differently in my sanctification than He does in yours.

This could only happen if the commitment to it was bigger than just the pastor’s commitment, or even the leadership’s. The entire congregation would need to be committed and consistent, even if/when they were put in awkward or challenging contexts.

I don’t know if such a church exists. If it does, it may be small and struggling. Churches that are so given to grace and truth together are seldom the kind of church that grows to huge numbers; it’s just not what most people (Christians included) are looking for in a church. 

But that seems like the kind of church that can minister effectively to Houston today.