Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bits and Tidbits, June 2011

  • 10 Coolest Hidden Doors and Secret Passageways. These are so cool, I wish it was the "100 best." I'm seriously designing options for these in our house, in my head.
  • The Garden's Secret Is Discovered. Really neat piece about an almost-forgotten building in St. Louis's botanical gardens, that is soon to be re-opened to the public. I wonder how many places there are like this in the world? Probably dozens, if not hundreds.
  • The Glorious Ruins of the Erie Canal. How interesting would this excursion have been? Like the previous tidbit, this is another artifact of a bygone era that is worth re-discovering. Is there no use for the canal now?
  • The Perils of a Heavy Bottled-Water Habit. A brief piece, mostly reporting statistics-- but hidden within them are some hard facts about bottled water that may make you re-think that flimsy plastic bottle the next time you're on the go.
  • Onion-Like Headlines in Real Life. These are really something; hilarious, because they really do sound like something from The Onion (a satire news website).
  • Plurality of Americans Believe Capitalism at Odds with Christian Values. Fascinating survey results here. Not that surveys establish truth, but when the predominate views of others-- including our fellow believers-- are that, basically, one of these things is not like the other, we should be ready to reconsider our views.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sermon texts for July 2011

Well, I've slacked off a lot on listing the sermon texts for our preaching series at HWPC, but here are the texts for July:

7/3/2011 -- Genesis 25:1-18, Life, Death, and Abraham (end of "Life of Abraham" series)
7/10/2011 -- Acts 8:4-25, From Judea to Samaria
7/17/2011 -- Acts 8:26-40, Who Is the Prophet Speaking About?
7/24/2011 -- Acts 9:1-19, Proud Made Humble
7/31/2011 -- Acts 9:20-31, A New Believer's Life & Ministry

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Calvin on the visible church

When I taught my seminar on membership in the local church at General Assembly, I received a number of great questions. One of them-- maybe the best one-- asked whether I took exception to the 4th and 5th membership vows in my firm stance that church membership is nothing more or less than a public profession of faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These two vows speak directly to the professing member's commitment to the church, and therefore some might infer that it is not a part of one's profession of faith in the Gospel.

I would contend otherwise-- that, in fact, our faith in the Gospel and our commitment to Christ's church are inseparable. This is an area where I hope/plan to do more thinking and writing in the next year or so. Meanwhile, here's a quote from John Calvin on the topic:

But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Matthew 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify (Isaiah 37:32; Joel 2:32). To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 13:9); as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance” (Psalm 106:4, 5). By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Ford Lewis Battles, trans., John T. McNeill, ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), Book IV, p. 6.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Facing "good" idols

At General Assembly, I was talking to a fellow pastor who confessed he and his wife' struggles with one of her "idols." She, it seems, is a perfectionist, and wrestles with it regularly.

What was interesting was my friend's comment about how he struggles with it: he said, "when she serves her idol, I benefit from it." It's nice, of course, to have a clean house, great meals, and other things that are the fruit of her skills and abilities wed to her perfectionism.

Here's the great difficulty with that, as with so many idols: they are rooted in good things. Her perfectionism is motivated out of a drive for excellence, which isn't bad nor is it sinful. The tricky part is, how do you embrace the motivation without serving the idol?

I think our addiction-prone culture has trained us to think of all idols (and addiction is surely one) in cold-turkey terms. In order to fell the idol, we have to stop all association with the activities associated with it. But how does this play out for perfectionism? For overeating? For the right exercise of leadership and power?

The antidote to a perfectionistic home-maker isn't, for example, to become a slob or a hoarder. Instead, it is to learn to serve the Lord, and not the idol, in keeping house.

How does this look for other idols?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Bangles vs. the Go-Gos

Most of us who grew up in the 80s will remember the two all-female pop/rock bands that dominated the airwaves for a while. (Yes, I realize there were others, but these two were arguably the most successful.)

The Go-Gos, fronted by Belinda Carlisle (with most songs written or co-written by Jane Wiedlin) had some huge hits, including "We Got the Beat," "Vacation," and "Our Lips are Sealed." While they started out as a punk band, they transitioned to new wave and then on to "power-pop" which is the style they were most known for.

Around the same time that the Go-Gos hit their peak, The Bangles also hit the scene. Their break-through single was "Manic Monday," and they subsequently released a handful of other strong offerings: "If She Knew What She Wants," "Walk Like an Egyptian," "Eternal Flame," and a great cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter." With a background more in the folk-rock and "jangle-pop" realm, their sound was quite different from The Go-Gos.

My friend Courtney Thompson has an incredible story about her experience as a Go-Gos fan and concert-goer; if you know Courtney, you should definitely ask her to tell you the story. Prepare to be amazed.

It is out of my love for Courtney and her great story that I offer the following suggestion with some trepidation: while I love The Go-Gos, and still enjoy their music, I think it's safe to say that The Bangles out-rocked The Go-Gos.

Rock and roll (or "rock 'n' roll") has always been a lot about letting loose the cares of the impressions and opinions of others and just expressing oneself truly. For all of their musical talent and creativity, The Go-Gos could never quite get there. Whether it was Belinda Carlisle's hunger for the spot-light or her and Jane Wiedlin's feud over credit, they seemed to be held back by concern over the attention they got and the opinions of others.

The Bangles were all about rock. The media attention given to Susanna Hoffs was unintended, garnered mostly because she happened to front most of their hit songs (and thus was the most recognizable of the band). But the typical practice of the band was to share vocals, even splitting some songs between them. While Hoffs' prominence was essentially the fault of the record company (who chose songs with her vocals to release as singles), it was also a sad and significant factor in the band's eventual break-up.

Here's the litmus-test: can you ever picture The Go-Gos doing "Walk Like an Egyptian"? Of course not; it's the kind of song that preys on self-consciousness. Yet, The Bangles not only recorded it, but it's probably the one time-testing single that they released, and not to their discredit. It's still a good song 25+ years later. That is a tribute to the fact that The Bangles weren't just a good band musically, but they were all about rock and roll.

(And now you have a sample of the kind of thing Marcie has to listen to me ruminate about...)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Culture or not culture-- which is it?

A pastor I knew back in the 90s was a big fan of Frank Sinatra. My friend loved Sinatra's voice, his musical offerings, and even the sense of "swagger" that was evident in the man. When asked about his thoughts on Sinatra's lifestyle (a serial divorcee with alcoholic tendencies and alleged ties to the mafia), my friend would shoo the question away, saying, "that stuff doesn't matter-- he's a great musician!"

Yet, the same friend was outraged about the antics of a certain former U.S. president, whose philandering ways had recently come to greater public attention. Because of the new knowledge of this president's personal life and conduct, my friend asserted that he should be ousted from office-- regardless of the professional and political success and effectiveness that was also displayed.

Jump forward a few years: while I was in seminary, I was the teaching assistant for a professor whose area of research (that eventually became a book) focused on the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator and how personality/temperament plays into calling, communication, etc. During that time, I visited a family from church in their home once, and over dinner the topic of my professor's research and book came up. One of my dinner companions (the husband/father in the family) dismissed it, saying (in sum) that such pop-psychology nonsense had no useful place in the church.

Meanwhile, we were enjoying some good music during and after supper; I remarked that it had been years since I had heard this particular album, by the long-successful band Kansas. What followed was an interesting conversation about good music, and why my hosts never listened to the stuff that was often passed off as Christian music-- they preferred, by far, to enjoy the talents of bands like Kansas.

Music isn't the same thing as psychology, nor are musicians the same sort of public figures as politicians. I'm not trying to draw a direct connection between the categories, but simply wondering this: if the personal life of a public figure like Sinatra is irrelevant to the quality of his professional achievements, why is a politician different? If the contributions to culture of a band like Kansas are acceptable-- and even preferred-- for (at least some) Christians, why not the cultural contributions of thinkers like Myers and Briggs?

Here's the underlying nature of my concern: those who would hold up "secular" artists as preferable in the quality of their art often appeal to concepts like the image-bearing of all of humankind, the creative nature inherent to that image-bearing, and the idea that "all truth is God's truth, wherever it may be found." Do those concepts only apply to artists, or do they apply in other realms of culture-making (such as the cultivation and maintenance of culture)?

If the second, then my friends given in the above examples are inconsistent. That's okay; we're all inconsistent in at least some ways. But the result is a luke-warm, halfway approach to culture that, I think, is damaging to their overall aim of seeing God glorified in creation.

Not that I would prefer necessarily that they become culture warriors! Rather, I would hope that they would see in presidents (past and current), psychologists, and others the same sort of "glorious ruin" that they are able to appreciate in the musicians they love.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Winter Light

As you may know, I work with a ministry called Doulos Resources, and one of the things we do is publish books and other materials that we see as meeting a particular need within the church, particularly those that don't have another venue for publication (because they fit into a "niche" for example).

Earlier this year, our board determined that one of the real needs for the church is good "literary" books that are also theologically sound. Consequently, we formed Kalos Press, an imprint of Doulos Resources, to focus on this need.

The first title from Kalos Press is now available: Winter Light: a Christian's search for humility by Bruce Ray Smith. Winter Light is everything we could want in a first title, setting the bar high for the rest of our forthcoming titles.

Even better, it is a great study in every Christian's struggle and quest for humility. Written in a journal style, it is at times poetic and always profound. The writing is beautiful, matched and surpassed only by the deep devotion and insight that the author displays in his own journey away from abject pride and toward a greater re-making in the image of Christ.

Winter Light is for sale in print and digital form; you can buy it from the Kalos Press website or the Doulos Resources eStore. It is also available through the Covenant Seminary Bookstore, Hearts & Minds Books, and the usual online venues.

I highly recommend Winter Light for your summer reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Recipe #1: No-knead bread

I've had half-a-dozen requests for a few of my recipes lately (I do most of the cooking at our house, so I have quite a few), and someone suggested that I post them on my blog. I get a lot of my recipes from other blogs and websites, so this seems a little redundant to me-- but then, I've tried plenty of recipes that were no good or needed a lot of "tweaking" so maybe I'll make a small contribution to the collective wisdom here, or at least serve as a screener.

Here's a great recipe for no-knead bread dough. This is from the book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.

1-½ tablespoons granulated yeast (about 1-1/2 packets)
1-½ tablespoons kosher salt
6-½ cups unbleached flour, plus extra for dusting dough

1. In a large plastic resealable container, mix yeast and salt into 3 cups lukewarm (about 100 degrees) water. Using a large spoon, stir in flour, mixing until mixture is uniformly moist with no dry patches. Do not knead. Dough will be wet and loose enough to conform to shape of plastic container. Cover, but not with an airtight lid.
2. Let dough rise at room temperature, until dough begins to flatten on top or collapse, at least 2 hours and up to 5 hours. (At this point, dough can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks; refrigerated dough is easier to work with than room-temperature dough, so the authors recommend that first-time bakers refrigerate dough overnight or at least 3 hours.)
3. When ready to bake, sprinkle cornmeal on a pizza peel. Place a broiler pan on bottom rack of oven. Place baking stone on middle rack and preheat oven to 450 degrees, preheating baking stone for at least 20 minutes.
4. Sprinkle a little flour on dough and on your hands. Pull dough up and, using a serrated knife, cut off a grapefruit-size piece (about 1 pound). Working for 30 to 60 seconds (and adding flour as needed to prevent dough from sticking to hands; most dusting flour will fall off, it's not intended to be incorporated into dough), turn dough in hands, gently stretching surface of dough, rotating ball a quarter-turn as you go, creating a rounded top and a bunched bottom.
5. Place shaped dough on prepared pizza peel and let rest, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough or refrigerate it in lidded container. (Even one day's storage improves flavor and texture of bread. Dough can also be frozen in 1-pound portions in airtight containers and defrosted overnight in refrigerator prior to baking day.) Dust dough with flour.
6. Using a serrated knife, slash top of dough in three parallel, 1/4-inch deep cuts (or in a tic-tac-toe pattern). Slide dough onto preheated baking stone. Pour 1 cup hot tap water into broiler pan and quickly close oven door to trap steam. Bake until crust is well-browned and firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven to a wire rack and cool completely.

I double this recipe, and put it all in an 8-quart dough bucket I got from a local restaurant supply store for about $5. With that amount of dough, we can make rolls, pizza dough, and a couple of loaves over the course of a week or more.

Also, I've used this as communion bread with great response; if you don't have a conviction about whether communion bread should be unleavened, your folks will love this.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Grand Rapids rocks American Pie

So, apparently Newsweek listed Grand Rapids, Michigan, on one of those lists that cities don't like to land on-- 10 most declining cities, or 10 worst places to live, or 10 cities that smell funny, or whatever.

In response, the mayor of Grand Rapids and the people of the city set out to rehabilitate the city's reputation. How? They did a city-wide lip-syncing video (called a "lip-dub"), using Don McLean's "American Pie" (a live version, no less) as the music. It set a world record for the largest lip-dub, and Roger Ebert called it the "greatest music video ever made."

I'm not sure I would quite agree with Ebert's effusive assessment, but it's well-done, meticulously coordinated, and a lot of fun. It certainly makes you think well of Grand Rapids, I think.

Have a look:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thoughts on creation

I recently read this piece on Scot McKnight's blog about a youth pastor who found himself in a crisis of conscience about what to teach regarding creation (the youth pastor is sympathetic to a "theistic evolution" view, while his congregation-- and especially the parents of his students-- hold to a "young earth creation" view).

I don't envy the youth pastor his dilemma, and it made me grateful for a presbyterian system in which variations of views are brought out and dealt with at ordination; for example, this youth pastor may not have been ordained, or he at least would have been given instruction about how to teach/not teach his variant view. But it also drew out a few reflections on the topic of creation, some of which have been matters of pastoral care for me as well. I don't get a lot of questions on this topic, but I've gotten a few.

Therefore, here are some thoughts on creation-- not the final word by any means, but perhaps worth a moment's reflection:
  • Let's keep priorities straight. Yes, creation is an important issue; however, its importance is almost entirely because the relationship of the question to our view of Scripture. Beyond that, it's important because it speaks to the dignity of humanity and our uniqueness among all the creatures. Apart from these two subjects, I have to question whether it isn't simply a point of trivia. Consider this: in the whole of the Bible, we have a single chapter discussing creation in general, and a second chapter that focuses on the creation of humankind. On the other hand, in the same book we have 15 chapters about Abraham; 12 chapters about Joseph; 9 chapters on Jacob; 4 chapters on Noah; 3 chapters on Isaac; and 2 on Sodom and Gommorah! Which seems like the higher priority to God?
  • The issue is not as simple as "creation vs. evolution" as it is often presented. When the PCA constructed a study committee a few years ago, the chair of the committee reported that he occasionally received phone calls asking for him to visit a church and do a presentation on "the two views on creation." His response was, "I'd be happy to; we've identified five views so far-- which two would you like me to present?" As Christians like to do, there is a good bit of over-simplifying of this issue that is unhelpful. We need to recognize that there are a number of different views on our origins, many of which can be described as consistent with biblical teaching.
  • I have friends who are scientists whose view is that it is scientifically impossible, and therefore irresponsible, to maintain a young-earth creation position; therefore, the best they can do is an "old-earth creation" position. Radiocarbon dating, for example, by its very definition seems to stand in the way of any sort of "young earth" view, and it is a generally-accepted method for determining the age of things. I can see why this presents a major obstacle, and an intellectual hurdle. And I'm not ready to discount "old-earth creation" (or any of its variants) as heresy or selling out the Gospel.
  • At the same time, I think it is nearly impossible to discount "young earth" 24-hour, six day creation solely on this basis either. According to Genesis, the whole universe was created "mature." When I consider the many nuances-- physical, physiological, mental, emotional, spiritual-- that led to my own maturity, it is staggering to think of the implications that such a factor may make when it comes to the appearance of things, versus the reality of things, in terms of the age of the earth. Likewise, without knowing exactly how a whole-earth-covering flood looked from a scientific standpoint, can we make reasonable estimates regarding how that much pressure would have changed the very nature of geological matter on the earth? Obviously some people are convinced that the answer is "yes"-- but I'm not.
  • Why is creation so important to conservative Christians-- even to the point (in some presbyteries in the PCA, for example) of refusing to ordain otherwise-qualified candidates because of their differing views from literal 24-hour, six day creation? Here's why: what you believe about Genesis chapters 1 and 2 suggests much about your view of Scripture in general. In other words, if you read Genesis 1-2, and it comes across as something other than an actual account of God's work, what else in Scripture will you receive that way? On the other hand, if you take Genesis 1-2 at face-value, you will probably take the rest of Scripture that way, too. Likewise, if your view of creation is such that it casts question on the inerrancy, authority, and reliability of the Bible, that is a huge factor in whether you can be (or should be) ordained.
  • Every major figure in Scripture-- Moses, David, Jesus, and the apostles-- speak of, or at least implicitly regard, the events of creation as actual historic events, and Adam as a real person. This presents real problems related to the previous point; if you think Jesus was mistaken about whether Adam was a real person, what else was he mistaken about? And does even the one mistake affect his capacity for imputing righteousness according to the law to you? Think also about Paul's declaration of Christ as the "second Adam" and therefore the doctrine of atonement through one divinely-appointed representative.
  • A more literal view on creation introduces a great sense of eschatological hope. I read another post recently from McKnight's blog, wherein someone said that God would have actually had to walk with Adam and Eve and talk with them in order for them to understand what violating His command would mean (and thus, they concluded, this was not an acceptable position). Leaving aside the implications that, if God doesn't come and walk alongside YOU then He must not have ever done it with Adam either, this introduces a view somewhat closer to deism than I'm comfortable with, and strips us of the hope and anticipation that all things will be made new, and that we will share in eternal fellowship with God-- as was originally intended, the Bible indicates.
  • I think Dr. Jack Collins's new book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care, will be immensely helpful in understanding this discussion and resourcing others to think clearly about it.

That's all for now. Maybe more to come...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What if the big stir about "homosexual marriage" isn't all that?

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've probably noticed that there has been a bit of discussion in recent years about "traditional marriage" and the press for the legalization of homosexual marraige and/or civil unions.

As I've considered this topic recently (as it tangentially relates to other things I've been considering), I wonder if social conservatives-- and Christians in particular-- aren't missing the more central issue altogether. What if homosexual marriage is a red herring?

Before I go any further, I want to say upfront that I do believe that the practice of a homosexual lifestyle is defined by the Bible is sinful (not just in the Old Testament), and that biblical marriage is a monogamous, life-long relationship between a man and a woman.

But as I read articles like
this piece by Marvin Olasky in World, I read of a generational sea-change in attitudes toward marriage in our broader culture:

They embody the stereotype of a younger generation that sees nothing wrong with "hooking up" or cohabiting before marriage. Skeptical about the possibility of lifelong love, they readily list downsides to marriage. A few admit that they would like to marry—for friendship, to ward off loneliness, and for support—but even they see marriage as constricting, depriving them of freedom and the ability to focus on their careers.

I have to wonder, in conclusion, why any of us think that marriage
in general is going to be a sustained value among our common western culture. Statistics, for what they are worth, certainly support the idea that biblical marriage (as I defined it above) is not the central or even peripheral sense of what a fulfilling relationship ought to embody. Olasky draws the following conclusion:

In general these students don't associate marriage with either childbearing or sex. It is one avenue among many to personal happiness, period. They see no right destination and no right way to get there. Anything that's mutually acceptable goes.

In light of this, why are we so concerned about homosexual marriage? Shouldn't we instead be concerned about marriage period?

Some hope is seen later in Olasky's article, when he states that, "The serious Christian students—with homeschool, Christian school, or public school backgrounds—are different. They have a high view of marriage. Many of them, even high-schoolers in Fort Payne, Ala., talk about marriage theologically." But the article goes on to talk frankly about how little these Christian students know how to begin down the path toward such marriage; they are confused about dating, courtship, mixed-gender group activities, and how to "keep their hearts pure."

It seems to me that we're fighting a battle on one front (marriage among same-sex couples) while the "enemy" (the disintegration of biblical marriage overall) is defeating our sentries and climbing over the walls behind us.

There is work to be done here that has very little to do with homosexuals.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Getting out of reading slumps

Usually, I read a lot. In fact, I've posted before (in answer to questions about how I read as much as I do) with some suggestions for how to read more efficiently. I regularly keep several books going at once, and also read a lot of blogs and a few magazines.

Lately, though, I've been in a reading slump! I realized the other day that it has been more than a month since I finished a book. There are a handful of reasons contributing to this slump: I have some editing, writing, and layout going for several books through
Doulos Resources and Kalos Press that I've been focusing on (one of which I'll mention soon in another post!); I have been trying to weed through the 100s of articles I've stored up in my Instapaper account; and I also have been working on other projects, including the seminar I'll give later this week at the PCA's General Assembly.

Mostly, though, I simply haven't been up to the mental work that reading books requires.

This doesn't mean I haven't been reading books at all! In fact, I've been working through sections of a dozen or more books for lessons I've prepared and taught, I've started a handful of other books, and have continued to work through a few that I'm taking a slower pace with. But my "slump" has led me to wonder:
what can I do to get out of a reading slump?

Here's a few thoughts that have come to mind:
  • It's okay to take a break! First off, I need to remember that there's nothing wrong with giving my mind a rest from reading as voraciously as I usually do. There is an ebb and flow to most parts of life, and both Scripture and nature (or general revelation) prescribe such.
  • Re-evaluate recent reading patterns. I noticed that I've been heavy on books related to editing, publishing, and book design. That's not a bad thing-- but the continual focus on a particular theme or topic can lead to a bit of mental burn-out on that subject. My next books need to represent a welcome change of topic.
  • Pick up something familiar and beloved. Maybe what I should read is something that will jump-start my re-invigoration of reading pleasure. In the past, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series has served me well in this way. So have books like William Still's The Work of the Pastor and Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son. Perhaps I'll re-read one or more of these in the early part of summer.
  • Find something completely different. For the past several summers, I've made it a point to read something off the regular reading path. For example, I was absolutely delighted to read How to Pick a Peach by Russ Parsons a few summers ago. I should find something like this-- not necessarily in terms of topic, but with regard to how far afield it is from my ordinary reading patterns.
  • Pick up something everyone is talking about. There are a couple of books that it seems like every other person I talk to has mentioned to me in the last six months or so: the Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography by Eric Metaxas, Eugene Peterson's memoir The Pastor. In recent years this category might have included Paul Miller's The Praying Life, Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do, and Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Likewise, a friend's recent recommendation of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany was so strong that I'm compelled to pick it up.
So, my reading plan over the next few months includes the following: Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son, Katie Hofner's A Romance on Three Legs, Peterson's The Pastor, and Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

If you're in a slump, let me know how these strike you. If you've come through one recently, what helped you crawl out of it?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

General Assembly Seminar

As my 10s of readers may know, I published a booklet with Doulos Resources in February: Grafted Into The Vine: rethinking biblical church membership.

At this year's PCA General Assembly, I'll be doing a seminar on the topic of this booklet. My seminar will be on Wednesday morning at 8am, and it's currently scheduled for meeting room(s) 4A&B. I'd love to see you there, if you can come!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Grad school? Maybe too close to home...

Here's an unvarnished look at why many, I suppose, opt for grad school (HT: Paul):

Thursday, June 2, 2011

G.A. Biz

With the PCA's General Assembly next week, I suppose I should attend to my annual overview of the overtures-- which is to say, the actionable items put before the whole assembly by the presbyteries. I've done this now for several years (2009, 2010) and I prefer to do it with a sense of anticipation before the assembly, as I want to avoid any appearance of failure to submit myself with love and grace if a vote goes other than how I prefer.

This year, there are 15 overtures; we've had a lot more than this in the past, and so it may mean a shorter assembly! Here's a summary of what's to come, and my thoughts about them.

As usual, there's a small collection of overtures dealing with the ordinary work of the PCA: overtures 1, 5, and 6 all request that a presbytery be divided to form a new presbytery. This is natural, given that (hopefully) new churches are being planted and the boundaries (numerically and geographically) are being stretched. These will almost inevitably pass.

Also as usual, there are a couple of overtures seeking to improve the PCA Book of Church Order (or BCO) by way of slight changes. For example, overture #4 addresses a loop-hole, of sorts, with regard to the transfer of interns from one presbytery to another. Likewise, overture #10 deals with the lack of explicit instruction for handling the occasional problem of when a congregation finds itself without ruling elders (but with a teaching elder). Again, I suspect these will pass with little discussion.

One topic of obvious interest this year is ByFaith magazine; specifically, the interest is in removing funding at the General Assembly level for it. Overtures 7, 13, and 14 all require that funding be taken away from ByFaith by the 2012 G.A. The rationale given here is that the magazine, which is under the Administrative Committee's oversight (and is funded by that committee) represents a significant chunk of the AC's budget, and one of the central issues of the last couple of years has been how better to fund the AC. This solution is, from a budget perspective, a fair one. But two things keep me from being in favor of this overture outright:
  • First, I think it's important (especially in a denomination the size of the PCA) for a presbyterian denomination to have some avenue for news about the denomination. While ByFaith's interest is much broader than simply a PCA news-zine, it does serve that purpose as well. However, that function is, I think, one of the things that keeps subscription appeal from being more broad; in other words, a ByFaith magazine that is expected to stand on its own financially (based, presumably, on subscriptions and advertising) will do best to drop the distinctive PCA aspect. This would leave the PCA without any means of news, which is problematic.
  • Second, if we're going to look around and decide that we should drop a publication for the sake of budgeting, I'd vote for Equip rather than ByFaith. While Equip is under the Christian Education & Publications arm of the PCA, rather than the AC, they are close enough to consider shifting the one (ByFaith) into the place held by the other (Equip). My rationale here is simple: Equip is simply not a very good magazine. The writing and editing is regularly fair-to-poor, and I don't find many of its pieces to be of great interest. (And if I don't-- as a pastor with a strong background in youth ministry and education-- then I would think many others don't either.) Let's keep ByFaith and replace Equip with it!
Nevertheless, I'll be surprised if these overtures (or a combined version of the three) don't pass.

Another small collection deals with the funding of the AC in other ways: overtures 3, 11, and 15 all offer different funding plans for the AC. (It should be noted, too, that all three of these are different from the funding plan that was presented at last year's G.A.!) I won't try to summarize the contents here, because it would get too complicated-- it might actually require charts and a spreadsheet. But I will offer the following thoughts about these overtures:
  • I actually thought the funding plan we had last year had merit -- unlike the majority (of presbyteries, that is-- the majority of commissioners at the 2010 G.A. actually voted it up!). I'm all for finding a good way to fund the AC.
  • I think there are some good ideas in these plans, and they will be worth considering.
  • That said, I don't envy the committees that have to look at these, try to harmonize them or choose among them, and present them to the assembly. Last year's plan had the benefit of a lot of advance explanation and it still took us hours to hash through them on the floor. Some of that may be because of the more disagreed-upon aspects, but these will inevitably have those, as well.
  • I think we'll leave G.A. with some form of a funding plan passed, but I couldn't begin to speculate on what that will look like-- nor whether it will pass at the presbytery level.

The rest of the overtures are stand-alone items, and they will all require some consideration:
  • Overture #2 requests that term limits be set for the Stated Clerk, and for the coordinators of program committees. In general, I like this idea a lot, as it will force the hand-off of leadership in the PCA to others. I hope this one will pass-- yet, I won't be surprised if it fails.
  • Overture #8 asks that BCO chapter 59, on the solemnization of marriage, be granted "full constitutional status." Here's what's quirky about this one: the BCO's Directory for Worship (the 3rd section in the BCO) has a brief statement at the beginning, announcing that, per a "temporary" ruling of the 3rd General Assembly (in 1975!), the Directory for Worship is not a part of any constitutional rule of law for the PCA. This was amended at the 11th General Assembly to grant full authority to chapters 56-58, and that's what this overture is seeking to expand. But I think it's a little silly that we continue to treat as permanent that which was obviously expected by the fathers and brothers 36 years ago to be temporary! This one will pass, though, in spite of the silliness, because our views on marriage have become a defining mark of orthodoxy in the eyes of so many.
  • Overture #9 is titled, "A call to faithful witness" but is actually a statement against a particular movement called the "Insider Movement." The concern of the overture (and presumably of the writers) is that such Insider Movements are a clever disguise for religious syncretism, and that's not an illegitimate concern, from what I can tell. While I can see how such movements might begin with a common-ground approach to evangelism, affirming some of the basic starting points of other religions, I can also see how this could quickly give way to a compromise of truth. I'm a little uncomfortable with how this plays out in the form of an overture, but I do think it's wise for the assembly to speak to this method with clarity. I have little doubt that this overture will pass.
  • Overture #12 requests that the PCA withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). This one probably won't be discussed as much as it should-- or perhaps I should say, in the manner in which it should. On the one hand, I agree with several of the premises put forth in the overture: if our rationale for being a part of the NAE is for exposure, credibility, and political lobbying leverage, then we're definitely due to reconsider this. On the other hand, I think part of the great weakness of the PCA (and of Reformed protestantism in general) today is our lack of capacity to be biblically catholic, and withdrawing from the NAE entrenches us further into this weakness. And while I think the term "evangelical" carries too much baggage (much of it political, not ecclesiastical, in nature) to be of much use, I have to wonder if this move won't hurt us more than it helps us. Still, I think there will be a loud minority that cries out against the alleged compromise that our ongoing affiliation with the NAE represents, and we'll end up passing this one too.

There you have it. We'll see in a week or so, I suppose, how accurate my read on all of this is. I'm looking forward to the assembly, as always! I hope to see you there.