Friday, February 27, 2009

Bits & Tidbits, Slate edition

Slate magazine is a good read; I find that they have a welcome style to presenting the news, with just a hint of snarky sarcasm when appropriate, and good humor often. They also do a good job of keeping up with what other news sources are reporting, and offer things like “top headlines of the week” from major sources.

Recently, they’ve had a small handful of articles that I would normally include in a “Bits & Tidbits” post, so I thought I would have one just for them.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the liturgical season called Lent.

If you have friends who are Roman Catholics, they will likely attend a Mass today and have ashes smeared onto their foreheads in the shape of a cross. This is done as a reminder of death and mortality-- ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as we say at funerals. When people leave the Mass and walk around in public with ashen crosses upon them, they are reminders that we are all, apart from Christ, literally walking dead people.

(Incidentally, these ashes traditionally come from burnt palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday.)

Today is a good day to fast (if you haven’t already eaten breakfast!), in response to, and in penitence for, the sin that brought death and fallenness into the world, which you share in the culpability for. Even if you simply miss a single meal, I’d recommend it.

I blogged about Lent a bit last year, and it’s worth a re-consideration. I’ll probably have a bit more to say about it later in the season. Meanwhile, have a good Ash Wednesday, everyone.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why I wear a clerical collar

Many of you have seen me wearing my clerical collar. I started wearing it not very long after I was ordained, but I don’t wear it all the time so many others have NOT seen it on me. Almost a year ago, I wrote about why I wear a robe in worship. Recently, a friend (and fellow pastor) saw me in mine asked that I write a similar post on them.

There are a handful of good reasons why I wear a collar.

First of all:
It makes me recognizable as the pastor. When you go into the hospital, it is clear who is the doctor; when you walk into a courtroom, you can easily tell which person is the judge. They are wearing distinctive clothing that sets them apart. Likewise, when a police officer or a fireman comes to your home, you recognize them for who and what they are by the clothing they wear. So, when someone comes into the church-- or when a pastor visits someone in their home, at the hospital, etc.-- then he should be easily recognized as the pastor.

Which leads to the question, why can’t a pastor simply wear a coat and tie, or a suit? This brings up the second reason:
It serves as the “uniform” of the pastor. Many professions have their uniforms, and it would seem odd for one to adapt the uniform of another. For example, it would seem strange for a court judge to start wearing a white lab-coat. When a pastor puts on a suit and tie, he is adopting the uniform of the secular business world. But I am NOT a business man; I am a pastor, and I ought to dress accordingly.

Contrary to popular misconception, the clerical collar is not Roman Catholic in origin. The current form of the collar (detachable) was actually invented in the early 1800s by a Scottish Anglican named Donald Macleodl however, its origins are actually thought to reach as far back as the 17th century as the daily street clothes of a pastor. It has historically been worn by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and even Pentecostals, as well as Roman Catholics (who didn’t adapt the clerical collar as streetwear for priests until the 19th century).

Also, and to me this is one of the most important reasons:
It presents me in the office I hold, not just as an individual. I am a pastor, not exactly because of who I am, but because of what God has called and appointed me to do. This calling and appointment has been verified by the local congregation I serve as well as the larger body (the Presbytery) that ordained me. When I show up for an event or circumstance that needs a pastor-- at the hospital, for example-- very often I don’t offer any real value as a person. When I show up in the capacity of my office, though, what I offer is the presence of something that is bigger and greater than just me: I offer the presence of a pastor. This is vitally important, and the clerical collar marks that capacity and presence distinctively.

Somehow we instinctively understand this; that fact brings to bear the next reason:
it offers me opportunities for ministry that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Like many others who wear a clerical collar, I have been surprised at the number of times when a perfect stranger has approached me for prayer or counsel-- because I am wearing my collar. (Without exception, this has NEVER happened without it-- even when I have been introduced to someone as a pastor.) In the store, on the street, or at the hospital, I have had a number of occasions already where I have found this to be the case (and I only began wearing one last summer).

it gives me access FOR ministry that I wouldn’t otherwise have. At least, I wouldn’t have it inherently. When I go to the hospital (without a collar) and identify myself as a pastor, then they are typically cooperative and allow me to visit my congregants wherever they are. When I’m wearing my collar, however, I don’t have to explain myself or make special requests-- I am instantly granted access to wherever I want to go. (I’ve joked with the son of one of our church members, who works at a local hospital, that my collar gives me as much access as his key-card!) This is true at a nursing home or funeral parlor as well. The benefit here is that, in moments that are timely or somewhat awkward, the collar answers questions before they need to be asked.

it “completes” my representation of the church. I’m firmly convinced that the pastor is always the public face of the local church. Regardless of whether he intends to be, the community around the church will regard him as such; this is a big reason why we have big problems church-wide when one of our pastors commits a significant act of indiscretion, no matter whether it would normally be “private” or not. Wearing a collar reminds others of this, and it reminds the pastor of this, too: I am conscious of the fact that I am a representative of the church more when I’m wearing my collar than when I’m not. (Some might argue that this would be a reason for all Christians to wear a uniform, which might be a bit odd; I don’t think it quite goes that far, though I think uniforms do have that benefit.)

A fellow PCA pastor in St. Louis has written a very helpful article about this, entitled, “
Why I Wear a Minister’s Uniform.” If you read it, you’ll see that I share a lot of these reasons in common with him. That’s not simply because he and I agree, but, I believe, more because these things are all true of clerical collars.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Prayer 5: Yancey on prayer and honest vulnerability

The Japanese, famous for their inscrutability, have two words that hint at the divided self. There is the tatemae (pronounced tah-teh-mah-eh), the part of myself I let people see on the outside, and the hon ne (pronounced hon[g] neh) what takes place on the inside where no one can see. Perhaps we need three words: one for the image of ourselves that we project to colleagues at work, clerks at the supermarket, and other casual acquaintances; one for the more vulnerable parts we make visible to select family members and best friends; and a third for the secret places we never make known. That third place is what God invites us to lay open in prayer. Prayer makes room for the unspeakable, those secret compartments of shame and regret that we seal away from the outside world. In vain I sometimes build barriers to keep God out, stubbornly disregarding the fact that God looks on the heart, penetrating beyond the tatemae and hon ne to where no person can see. As God informed the prophet Samuel, "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." In truth, what I think and feel as I pray, rather than the words I speak, may be the real prayer, for God "hears" that too. My every thought occurs in God's presence. (Psalm 139:4, 7-8: "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord... Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.") And as I learn to give voice to those secrets, mysteriously the power they hold over me melts away.

Philip Yancey,
Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p. 41

Friday, February 13, 2009

Back soon...

Events have conspired against me this week (well, for the last several weeks lately) which is why my blogging pace has slowed so substantially.

My personal commitment to this blog (and to blogging in general) is always subject to the more important matters of family and ministry. In other words, when life gets busy, blogging will always be among the first things to go.

I’ve got about a dozen blog posts started with about a sentence or two, reminding me of the general idea I wanted to (eventually) write about. Hopefully those will make their way to you soon. Meanwhile, thanks for your patience!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Christian Cultural Identity, part one

Rachel Gardner is a literary agent whose blog I read regularly. This morning, she posted about an e-mail she recently received, where someone who had come across her blog asked why she self-identified as a “Christian” on her blog about being a literary agent. She responded, but also invited others to comment. I’d like to offer my thoughts here.

The question-- and the answer(s)-- are a symptom of a problem that the Kingdom of God has had for some time now: is it good and right to have a “Christian” writer, musician, literary agent, artist, etc.? Why not simply have a literary agent? A musician? An artist?

Over the last several hundred years, a cultural shift took place that cemented our current environment with the above problem as a definitive element. Christians, perhaps offended at the moral/ethical degradation of society as reflected in such cultural artifacts as music, literature, art, and so on, slowly concluded that the best solution would be to offer a niche in each of these arenas that was intentionally and overtly “Christian” in its content. Thus, the industries of Christian sub-culture were born, and now we have Christian publishing houses, Christian music labels, Christian television networks, Christian movie studios...

[An aside: what is ironic is that, in the last several decades, most of these companies have been purchased by larger companies that are
not distinctively identified with a particular faith or religious group, but are-- shhh-- “secular” companies! Oh no!]

Now, everyone who has ever set out to defend this sub-culture to me has appealed to one of several angles:
  • It offers a good opportunity for evangelism of the lost
  • It provides a “healthy” alternative to secular media for Christians
  • It fulfills biblical concepts of work, creativity, etc.

I would put it to you, however, that, if it does any of those, it does not necessarily do them well. Rather, it may be the case that this sub-culture often does NONE of those things!

Let me offer an example: when I was in college, a good friend of mine had come to faith recently enough that her tastes in music were still largely untouched by her perceptions of how to practice her faith. I recall overhearing a conversation that she had with an older student who, at the time, worked for a Christian bookstore. He was counseling her about what music to listen to, and encouraged her to “try this band, they sound like
X, and this band sounds like Y...

At one point I asked her: why don’t you keep listening to the bands you like? She said, “listening to them makes me angry.” So I suggested, could it be the form of their music-- the sound, style, pace, etc.-- that affects her mood, at least as much as the content (lyrics)? She confessed that she didn’t actually pay that much attention to the lyrics. Why, then, would she want to find a “Christian” version of the same anger?

The problem with my friend wasn’t that she was seeking change to better live out her faith. It was that the change she was seeking wasn’t
enough. She was interested in keeping just enough of the “old self” (Eph. 4:22-24) to be comfortable, but just enough of the “new self” to make appearances. She wanted change, but not too much change.

Is this sort of music a tool for evangelism? Perhaps in a weak, bait-and-switch way, since you’ll surreptitiously slip “good” content (in the lyrics) in using familiar styles of music-- assuming the two don’t contradict each other, or that the listener pays close enough attention to the lyrics (and that they are well-written enough!) to actually get the message. But I doubt it is “healthy” for a Christian, as I suggested above. (I’ll address the biblical concepts of creativity and work at a later point.)

[Another aside: I’m not at all endorsing a perspective that certain kinds of music are inherently bad or evil. If that is true, I don’t think we can consider ourselves to be fair and objective measures of it. Rather, let me highlight that music is a highly emotive art form, and it evokes real and distinct responses from people; if the music you listen to causes you to stumble into a sinful attitude toward others, simply changing the lyrics is unlikely to help-- unless, of course, you’re listening to hymns that are full of bad theology and sinning in that way...]

Of course, the alternative in the Christian sub-culture is no better. In contrast to the “sound-alike” artists and bands, a good bit of what is marketed as “CCM” (=Contemporary Christian Music) is musically and lyrically poor, something like a mix of Muzak with bubblegum pop and a dash of lounge act thrown in. This may actually be the preferred style/genre for some, but I haven’t met them. Rather, most people I have known who listen to this style of CCM do so out of a sense of obligation. Certainly, it fails in terms of any evangelistic effort-- non-believers won’t subject themselves to it! But it also fails in terms of offering a “healthy” alternative, as it is something like the spiritual equivalent to diet pills: they taste bad, and while you will lose weight, you’ll also mess up your system while denying yourself the right enjoyment of creative and well-prepared meals.

In other words, in the search for change through “Christian” music one typically either finds too much change (where the actual inherent quality of the music suffers as a result) or not enough change (where there is too much latent worldliness and unholiness to accomplish the goal of holiness and sanctification). You rarely find a winning combination there.

This is why Michael Horton once said, “When people become Christians, they throw out all of their secular music; when they become [theologically] Reformed, they throw out all of the Christian music!” He affirmed in that statement that the sub-culture approach to music offers little help to the thoughtful, intentional Christian.

But what of the many musicians who are Christians, writing excellent music and lyrics and recording good songs about real life-- but who don’t feel the need to distinguish themselves as overtly “Christian,” either in their identity as musicians or through their musical content? Not that they hide their faith, or put on pretense; rather, their perspective is that if their music is good, they are fulfilling their calling as musicians and as Christians. (Now we’re beginning to dip into the biblical mandate for work and creativity...)

In my next post on this subject, I’ll take that topic up.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Prayer 4: getting what we ask for

All last week, Jack had been asking me if he can have some of the soup I bought for Marcie. He asked if he could have it for supper Wednesday night instead of the steaks I was grilling. When I said no, he asked if he could have it Thursday night instead of whatever we were going to have (which happens to be home-made pizza). I told him I would fix it for him for lunch on Thursday.

Marcie loves this soup, but I knew that it might be a bit complex and even spicy for his tastes. I even suggested as much: wouldn’t he prefer a soup he knows and likes? He was confident: please, may I have THAT soup.

So he got it. And he didn’t like it-- it was too spicy. In fact, he didn’t even finish his bowl, even though that was all he was offered for lunch. We tried adding a little milk to tone down the spiciness, but to no avail.

Though he doesn’t know it, Jack has demonstrated why prayer often turns out the way it does. By that I mean, why we often don’t “get what we asked for” in prayer.

When we appeal to our heavenly Father, we believe-- sometimes with the utmost confidence and conviction-- that we KNOW what is best for us, what we need in a certain circumstance, or the way things should go. Our assumption is, naturally, that we, of all creatures, should know what is right and good. And when we
don’t get what we’ve asked for, we are incredulous.

Yet, isn’t it so that God may know something we don’t? In fact, is it inconceivable that God knows something
about us that we don’t? If God knows what we don’t, and has promised to provide for our needs, why do we question when He doesn’t give us what WE ask for?

Because we doubt-- that God is good, that He responds in love, and that what He provides for us is truly what we need. Luke 11:13 tells us: “if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” And we think, “wait-- I don’t need the Holy Spirit! I need
this or that...”

When lunch was over, Jack asked me why I didn’t give him a soup he would like. I reminded him that he had been asking me for that particular soup, and his response was a pleasant surprise:

“Dad, next time will you give me a soup that you know I will eat, even if I ask for a different soup?”

Out of the mouths of babes...