Monday, December 23, 2013

Recipe: Christmas "Reindeer"

IMG 1749It's been a long time since I posted a recipe; here's a Eubanks family favorite.

We call these "reindeer" because (a) they do look kind of like Rudolph, and (b) it's simpler than "chocolate-peanut-M&M-pretzels." But that's basically all they are. They are delicious, and a great quick mouthful of wonderful. They package well for gifts (we typically put them in the cellophane treat bags that can be found at Walmart), or can fill out a tray for a party. (That is, if they last until the party! Ours always go fast.)

Here's what you need:

1 16oz. bag of small twist pretzels*

2 11oz. bags of Hershey's Dark Chocolate Kisses

2-3 12.6oz. bags of Peanut M&Ms


1. Preheat your oven to 200°.

2. Unwrap the Hershey's Kisses.

3. Separate red and green M&Ms (optional; see note †).


4. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper. (I strongly recommend a true cookie sheet, not a "jelly-roll" pan — you'll see why in step 9.)

5. Lay out pretzels covering the entire sheet of parchment paper; it's okay to put them really close (give just a little margin, though). You'll find it easier later if you turn all of the pretzels so that they are oriented the same way.

6. Place one unwrapped Hershey's Kiss on each pretzel in the "bottom" part of the twist — the teardrop-shaped part — so that the tip of the Kiss is pointing toward the center. (See photo.)
IMG 17467. Put the sheet of pretzels+Kisses in your pre-heated oven, just long enough to soften the chocolate thoroughly but not to the point of melting — 6–7 minutes is ideal in a 200° oven. (Be careful, too, of scalding the chocolate, which imparts a bitter taste.)


8. Place one M&M in the center of each softened Kiss. Go ahead and smash it down a good bit; this will set the M&M into the chocolate more firmly, and also cause the chocolate to spread around the pretzel better — all of which makes them stay together better after they set.

9. Slide the parchment paper off of the cookie sheet onto a table or counter. This step is technically optional, but doing so will allow them to cool and set faster, and free up your cookie sheet for another batch!

10. Allow them to cool and set until the chocolate is solid again.


Molly discovered these at a preschool holiday party. At that point, she was still a pretty picky eater (especially when it came to sweets), but when she tried these she said, "those are good!" I knew that I had to try them if she thought they were that good, and she was right!
IMG 1748

The mom who brought them claimed she just threw them together; she wasn't planning on using the Dark Chocolate Kisses, but the store was out of milk chocolate ones. (What a happy accident!) Molly and I bought the stuff to make more on the way home from the party, and we've made multiple batches every year since.

* We prefer Rold Gold Tiny Twists; the flavor in them matches better with the sweet chocolate than Snyder's.

† If you're a Rudolph purist, get the holiday colors (red and green) and pick out all of the green ones — and in that case you'll need three bags. If you don't care about greens, reds, yellows, and browns, you can probably get by on just two bags.

‡ DON'T use wax paper; you'll never get all of it peeled off of the bottoms of the softened chocolate!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thoughts on Amazon's "drone" announcement

NewImageI’ve seen a few pieces on Jeff Bezos’s announcement that Amazon intends to use “drones” (aka UAVs) for package delivery. (See the link here for one such article.)

At first I thought this was a piece from The Onion; frankly, I’ll be surprised if this really ends up happening. First of all, I’m thinking about the shear quantity of UAVs that will be required for something like this to work — and, consequently, the number of UAV operators Amazon will have to employ to bring it off. Somewhat contrary to their name, “unmanned aerial vehicles” are only un-manned in the vehicle itself; there is someone, somewhere, flying the thing. I suppose it is conceivable to program their routes to a degree, but the infrastructure for this is a long way off (if it is even possible). Let me elaborate a bit...

In order to program one UAV to go from point A to point B completely un-manned, the UAV itself would have to have very accurate GPS technology aboard, along with probably an altimeter and some other sensors to ensure that it doesn't crash-land. It would also have to be part of a well-established network that not only tracks that UAV, but also all of the others that are cleared to fly in that particular air-space. In other words, think of the work that the flight controllers currently do to make sure that planes don't crash into each other, and imagine trying to automate that entirely. Otherwise, we have fifty or hundred-pound UAVs crashing into each other and falling to the ground (or on top of your car, your house, or your kid).

Now, add to that the enormity of the number of UAVs that it would take to deliver Amazon's packages — even just the Prime ones, or even a subset of those. How many per day would that be? And would there be a limit to which items Amazon could deliver — or are they going to have some HUGE UAVs for the heavier stuff?

Third, I can see the Federal Aviation Administration having a lot to say about whether Amazon's program can actually take off (pun intended). I have a couple of friends who work pretty closely with UAVs, and a few others who are pilots; to hear them tell it, there's a long way to go before the kind of airspace clearance this would require will be available for general civilian use.

So Amazon has to get past the following obstacles:
  • Acquire a huge number of UAVs and equip their distribution centers to use them
  • Either (a) hire a ton of UAV pilots as, essentially, a team of Doug Heffernans — and are there even that many UAV pilots available? Or will Amazon pay for their training?
  • OR, (b) build a massive computerized system that will allow all of those hundreds thousands of UAVs to operate fully-unmanned; AND retrofit the UAVs to run on that system flawlessly
  • Only THEN can they appeal to the FAA for approval, which will cost them millions in lobbying money to get

And Bezos thinks they're going to do all of that by 2015?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Getting back to blogging, and an update

If any of my faithful 10s of readers are still around, they will have noticed that my blog went "dark" at the beginning of the summer. But for a single post a couple of weeks ago, I haven't blogged at all since early June.

That's about to change! I miss blogging, as I find it to be a venue for penning thoughts that are too long for Twitter or a Facebook status, but perhaps too esoteric or fleeting to merit an actual article. In the months to come, I intend to blog much more regularly again.

Many of my readers may also be curious about the latest news in my life — there are some major changes to report! (And, in fact, it is related to my absence in blogging.)

In late spring/early summer, things began to take a turn for the church I have served as pastor for the last two years. Over the summer and into the early fall, the congregation discussed the potential and plans for the future, and in the end we agreed that the best thing for all involved would be to close the doors and dissolve the church.

Which means that my "call" as pastor to that congregation dissolves, as well. The congregation generously cared for us with a severance package, and that gives us time to make our plans for what is next.

And those plans are beginning to come together. I will write more about that after the beginning of 2014, but I welcome your prayers in the meantime.

So, look for me to return to regular blogging, now that the stress, demands, and complexity of the last six months is behind me!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The challenge of strict subscription

A friend of mine has asked the same question in several forms, several times: When it comes to the ordination standards in the PCA, specifically regarding our subscription to the Westminster Standards, what is the point of subscription at all if it isn't full, unqualified subscription?


First, a little background: the Westminster Standards are a set of documents, consisting of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These were the product of an assembly in the mid-1600s, which set forth the theological standards for many Reformed congregations and denominations (especially Presbyterian ones). In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Westminster Standards, along with our Book of Church Order, form the constitution of our church as a denomination. (Presbyteries and congregations may add to that constitution through by-laws, standing rules, etc. — so long as the additions are not in conflict with the constitution.)

A little more background: in 2002, the 30th General Assembly of the PCA voted to approve "Good Faith Subscription" to the Westminster Standards by changing the Book of Church Order, chapter 21, section 4, which states explicitly what the requirement for subscription is and shall be (and how it shall be determined). With the passage of this amendment, the following language was added to the PCA's constitution:
While our Constitution does not require the candidate's affirmation of every statement and/or proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms, it is the right and responsibility of the Presbytery to determine if the candidate is out of accord with any of the fundamentals of these doctrinal standards and, as a consequence, may not be able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures (cf. BCO 21-5, Q. 2; 24-5, Q.2).

Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination the Presbytery shall inquire not only into the candidate's knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court's judgment the candidate's declared difference is not out of accord with a fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.

The alternative to "Good Faith" Subscription as described above is "Full" or "Strict" Subscription, which would turn the very first sentence of the added language on its head, in effect saying: "Our Constitution requires the candidate's affirmation of every statement and proposition of doctrine in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms." And this is essentially the basis of my friend's question; why not require Full Subscription?

Problem 1: "I'm right, you're wrong"

One presbytery asked me, in examination, "Do you believe in Strict Subscription to the Westminster Standards?" to which I replied, "Believe it? I've seen it with my own eyes!" And I have; I know brothers in several presbyteries, including some in which I have been a member, who are Full/Strict Subscriptionists. I count some of them as my friends. I don't have a problem, in principle, with their claim of being a Strict Subscriptionist — though I DO have a problem with some of them who hold it against me that I am not also one.

Which brings up the first issue with Strict Subscription: the "I'm right, you're wrong" issue.

As stated in the second added paragraph in BCO 21.4 (as well as in BCO 19.2.e), presbyteries have a right to determine exactly what their standards for membership shall be. A presbytery may, if it chooses, apply a "Full Subscription" standard for all ordinands and transfers, and refuse membership to any Teaching Elders or prospective Teach Elders who do not meet that standard. Some PCA presbyteries have done this, more or less (though the standard sometimes seems to be selectively-applied).

Many PCA presbyteries have elected to apply the "Good Faith Subscription" standard, however. And in each of those presbyteries, her members must follow the standards determined by the whole of Presbytery. Therefore, even members who themselves are Strict Subscriptionists are required to judge ordinands and transfers according to the standards set by their Presbytery — not according to their own standards for subscription. If an ordinand or transfer declares an exception to a particular phrase or idea in the Westminster Standards which the Strict Subscriptionist believes to be "hostile to the system of doctrine" or "[striking] at the vitals of religion" — but the rest of his Presbytery views as an acceptable exception — the burden of proof is on the Strict Subscriptionist to show that the rest of the body is wrong.

In one presbytery I have been a member of (which accepted Good Faith Subscription), a fellow presbyter who is (or at least was) a Strict Subscriptionist would regularly vote against the approval of every part of an ordinand's exam, if that ordinand had registered any exception to the Westminster Standards. Setting aside the problem of a fallacy of composition (does he REALLY disagree with EVERY part of the exam? Or just the theological parts — which he has the specific opportunity to vote against?), this is simply a divisive practice which sets the Strict Subscriptionist at odds with his brothers and fellow presbyters unnecessarily. Personally, I think an argument could be made to discipline someone like this if that spirit were to persist.

But this is not just the problem of one or two Teaching Elders; it is increasingly common to hear (or more likely, read — on the internet) from a Teaching Elder who doesn't like the way a certain matter was decided by the courts of the church (usually in favor of allowing someone's real or perceived variation from the Standards), so they make no bones about it. Tell me, which Teaching Elder is better exercising his vows to submission to the brethren: the one who registered his exceptions and allowed the courts to judge them, willing to accept their judgment either way; or the one who speaks out openly and publicly in opposition to that judgment, invoking accusations of compromise, heterodoxy, and heresy?

Problem 2: Language changes

Can we agree that, in the 400+ years since the writing of the Westminster Standards, it is possible — even likely — that the meaning and usage of some of the words and phrases have changed?

Certainly, anyone who has studied language would acknowledge this in principle; seminarians learn Koine Greek, not Classical or Modern Greek, because the nuances of the language are sufficiently different so that the translation, and more importantly the interpretation, of the text of the New Testament could be unclear or even wrong if one of the others were employed. Even more so English, itself a fairly young language, and one which has seen significant changes even in the last 50 years, let alone 400.

How do those language changes affect our ability to subscribe to the statements? I think it has the potential to affect them greatly. This is precisely why one of the descriptions of such an exception is that the stated difference is "merely semantic in nature" — meaning, essentially, we would word it differently today, we all know that, and that is basically what said exception is affirming.

Otherwise, consistency questions arise by the handful. Should we insist on a specific English translation of the Bible, for similar consistency (perhaps the KJV, as that is the version the writers of the Westminster Standards employed)? If the language of the Standards is immutable, what does that suggest about amendments to it? And so on.

[As an aside: this can be equally a problem with our BCO, as well. We have to allow for the fact that things aren't perfectly worded, as well as for the possibility likelihood that some of the language is archaic and therefore less useful.]

Problem 3: Historical precedent

In American Presbyterianism, there is a long history of Good Faith Subscription. In 1729, the Adopting Act was passed, which required that every Teaching Elder present to his synod/presbytery his "scruples" regarding differences and exceptions to the Westminster Standards, which would then be judged as to whether they were differences on essential or non-essential matters. Sound familiar?

The point isn't what constituted essential vs. non-essential matters, or even what precipitated any sort of compromise that this act represented between "liberal" and "conservative" theological convictions. The point is that they all agreed that some matters were essential, while others are non-essential — even for the ministers of the Church.

The other point is that this is always about submission to the body. No Teaching Elder simply gets to decide whether his exceptions are or not about essential matters (and further steps have been taken in the PCA in recent years to ensure that this in not ever assumed to be the case). Rather, he subjects himself to the judgment of his presbytery — and, if there are questions there, then the presbytery itself is subject to the review of the General Assembly.

But the adamant Strict Subscriptionist (and know this: NOT ALL Strict Subscriptionists are adamant) will reject it all: the historical precedent and practice, the vote of the General Assembly to allow her presbyteries to enact Good Faith Subscription as they wish, the judgment of those presbyteries about which matters are essential and non-essential, and the review of the General Assembly of those judgments. Instead, he will grumble about how wrong everyone is but him (and now we're back to problem #1 again).

Problem 4: Constitutional issues

The original Westminster Standards of 1646 said some things that are NOT in our Westminster Standards today — particularly, it stated that civil magistrates had the authority to call for synods and councils of the Church, and that the Pope was the antichrist. I don't agree with either of those — do you?

Neither did the Presbyterians in early U.S. history — which is why, when they adopted the Westminster Standards for their constitution in 1789, they removed these portions of the Standards.

One of the "trick" questions that is often asked during an ordination trial is this one: "Why isn't the Bible part of the constitution of the PCA?"

The answer: because the Bible cannot be amended.

As I mentioned above, the Westminster Standards, along with the PCA Book of Church Order, are the constitution of my denomination. As a constitution, both of these documents can be amended. And, in fact, they SHOULD be amended, from time to time. We pass amendments to the BCO every year, and it is a very dynamic document. The Westminster Standards are much less so. Still, the writers of the Standards themselves recognized that their work should not be seen as immutable:
All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. (WCF 31.3)

These writers had themselves in mind, first and foremost, when they wrote that paragraph. I am as certain of this as I am of anything else that I believe about the Westminster Confession. We would do well to think like that, as well.

These words are not canon; they are not written in stone, and they can be and have been amended. I have little doubt that, within my lifetime, they will be again.

In light of that, the next problem arises...

Problem 5: Which Standards?

This is the question I most want to ask my Strict Subscriptionist friends (and HAVE asked some of them). Is their Strict Subscription to the original 1646 version? If so, do they register their exceptions to the 200+ year-old amendments? And if not, how do they justify their claim to "Strict" Subscription?

More importantly: if the PCA were to amend the Standards in the years to come (likely, since we've seen several overtures asking for that at the last couple of General Assemblies), how would they handle those amendments? If they are Strict Subscriptionists to THIS version of the Standards, would they register exceptions to the amendments?

The best answer I have gotten from a Strict Subscriptionist friend is, "I would follow the will of the church — and if the Assembly votes to amend the constitution, I submit myself to that." Meaning, they would be just as strictly a Strict Subscriptionist to the new version as they are to the current one.

But to that I say, "Okay, but the Assembly HAS voted to allow exceptions, by way of an amendment to our constitution; why is that different?"


I don't think there is a good answer to these questions, if you are a Strict Subscriptionist. At least, not if by "good" you mean (at least) "consistent" — which I do.

And that leads me to my last problem (for now).

Problem 6: Inconsistency abounds

In one presbytery examination, the Teaching Elder being examined (who was transferring in) claimed that he took no exceptions at all to the Westminster Standards. When the floor was opened for questions, he was asked, "Would you please describe for us your practices for the Sabbath day?" After some hemming and hawing, he eventually said, "I admit that my Sabbath-day practices are not in accordance with what is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith."

What should the body have done? As I see it, our options were two: either discipline him for openly and callously violating his own convictions about the fourth commandment, or help him to craft a statement of exception that brought his practices into conformity with his (newly) declared convictions. (We did neither, by the way.)

In another exam on another day, a Teaching Elder was asked about his exception to WCF 21.8, concerning Sabbath-day practices: "Would you participate in organized sports on Sundays, or would you allow your children to do so?" His response was, "Well, I like to watch NFL football, so I guess I would have to say 'yes.'" The questioner had no response (possibly because he himself enjoyed watching professional sports on Sundays, as well).

In yet another exam, a brother openly stated that he was a "Strict Subscriptionist" — which precipitated a question about whether the Pope was, indeed, the antichrist. He first dismissed the question on the basis that our current version of the Westminster Confession of Faith did not contain that accusation, but then backpedaled and began to argue that, in fact, the Pope was AN antichrist. (But wait: if you claim to strictly subscribe to the language of the original 1646 version, that document actually says, "THE antichrist" — not merely "AN antichrist." So would that be an exception, because the original writers were wrong to say "THE"?)

The point here is this: I don't know very manyany Strict Subscriptionists who are consistent. There is always some aspect of the Standards that they work out some nuance about, or qualify in some way.


Early in my years of ministry, a good friend and mentor commented to me that, "Anyone who says they don't have ANY exceptions to the Westminster Standards probably hasn't read them very carefully."

I think he's right, and my experiences (even with Strict Subscriptionists) stand as anecdotal evidence that he is. That's why I have a couple of pages' worth of exceptions registered with my presbytery (as I did with the presbytery I was ordained in). So far, each presbytery I've been a member in has judged me to be orthodox in my beliefs, and for that I am grateful.

But if I were convinced that Scripture did not teach something that was considered to be a "vital" matter in the Standards, I would submit to the ruling of the Body on that — even if it eventually meant losing my ordination. (I hope they would find that I had a teachable spirit, and would respond to that accordingly first before stripping me of credentials!) The Westminster Standards cannot be viewed as infallible, and I will gladly leave any body in which they are viewed as such.

I also think that, if the writers of the Standards were around today, they would be a little bit aghast that we were still using a 400 year-old document as our confession of faith. But I think they would also allow that Teaching Elders should be able to note our "scruples" with the non-essential matters of the documents (though I consider the term "scruples" to be a matter of difference, if only a semantic one.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Why I Love General Assembly

[From Pastor Ed… for June, 2013]

During our time away in June (almost four whole weeks!), I'll spend five days in Greenville, South Carolina for the 41st General Assembly of the PCA — our annual meeting for the whole denomination. I thought it might be worthwhile to use my column this month to mention a few things about General Assembly, and why I love attending it every year.

What is General Assembly?

A lot of people don't really know what General Assembly is; one year (when G.A. was in Virginia Beach), a well-meaning church member asked me if I had enjoyed my week on the sand working on my tan! In fact, I only saw the beach when I was driving past it on the way to the convention center…

Our denomination's constitution calls for a meeting, at least annually, wherein the entire denomination gathers. Every man ordained as a Teaching Elder may register as a Commissioner, and every congregation may also send representative Ruling Elders as Commissioners. Typically, there are between 1200 and 1500 men present as registered Commissioners (meaning they can participate in discussion and vote on voting matters). Usually there are another few hundred men there who are not registered, as well as hundreds of wives and children.

Throughout the week, a number of things happen. Seminars are offered about a wide range of topics, which can be great food for thought and discussion. Fellowship events are organized for all manner of groupings, from seminary alumni gatherings to missions presentations to further specialized training. A large hall of exhibitors offer opportunities to gather information about ministry matters, denominational agencies, further teaching and seminary training, and what's new in Christian publishing. The PCA Bookstore sets up a large store presence, and many books are available at a discount.

The assembly itself is also an interesting series of events. There will be reports from the different agencies — domestic and foreign missions, Covenant College and Covenant Seminary, the PCA Foundation and Retirement & Benefits, Ridgehaven (our camp and conference center), Reformed University Fellowship, the Administrative Committee, and our Christian Education & Publications division. There are also reports and words of greeting from sister denominations, and information on our formal affiliations with them. We'll hear reports from study committees and receive recommendations from them for how we might act on their findings. There are discussions about how we might improve our church constitution, and actions that we take to exercise oversight and accountability.

Then there's worship: every day, the whole gathered assembly (including non-registered folks) gather to worship together. Some of the best preachers in the denomination are invited to open God's Word to us, and we share in celebration of the Lord's Supper in the opening service. Additionally, throughout the day we will often pause for prayer, and we regularly take time to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs together.

Finally, there's the informal fellowship that abounds. Many friends old and new reunite each year: seminary classmates, former co-workers and fellow pastors, men who served together in presbyteries at some point, and brothers who have grown in friendship simply by attending the assembly year after year. Often, these are the only times these friends connect, but this annual re-grouping is much like a class reunion or a homecoming.

What I Love

Frankly, I love each part of what I named above. I could go through and tell why each delights me in its own way (and I would be happy to if you ask me!). But there are some specific things that make me look forward to it each year…

  • Being Presbyterian: I love to see the Body of Christ at work, coming together beyond the boundaries of the local congregation and collaborating, cooperating, engaging in healthy and brotherly discussion, and seeking a common end. While I inevitably disagree with some of the things said, all of us seek the same end: Christ's glory and the advance of His Kingdom. And part of what is great about being Presbyterian is that, ultimately, we are called on to trust the larger Body of Christ — and the decisions made in gatherings like this — over our own preferences.
  • Continuing Relationships: I've learned that there are far too many friends to re-connect with than there is time to do it. Every year, I fill up my calendar with appointments for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and other free times. There isn't a lot of extra time at G.A., but I try to make use of as much of it as possible.
  • Seminars: I usually attend one or two seminars each year; the list of possible topics is always very long, and it's hard to decide! I've also had the privilege of teaching a seminar or two most years, and this year I'll be teaching another: "Rethinking Biblical Repentance". I'm always challenged by the prospect of developing my seminars (and this year is no different), as well as by the discussion that ensues during and after my seminars. I'm always grateful for the opportunity to share ideas with others, and seminars are a super occasion to do so.
  • Doulos Resources: as most of you know, I serve as the Director and Board Chairman for a small side-ministry called Doulos Resources; our goal is to equip the church, and especially the leaders of the church, with resources in order to build up the Body of Christ. Our annual meeting is always on the Tuesday of General Assembly, and it is a wonderful time to connect with the dear friends and brothers I serve with.
  • Committee Meetings: most years, I have been asked to represent our presbytery on one of the "Committees of Commissioners" — these are committees that meet before the assembly officially convenes, in order to read over the records and actions of the various ministries and agencies of our denomination. This year, I will serve on the Committee of Commissioners for Covenant College, and I'm looking forward to considering with the other commissioners how God has been at work through this great school (especially during the first year of their new President, Derek Halverson).
  • Exhibits: the exhibit hall is a great place to learn about new programs, curricula, missions efforts, and other ways that our local church can better minister to our members and to/with the larger church. I usually have a few things that I want to seek out each year, in hopes of gleaning some ideas for advancing the ministry of our church once I get home.

Thanks for enabling me to go to our General Assembly! I expect it will be a lot of hard work, and probably a little exhausting! But it will also be an awesome time for ministry and for my edification.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fears and Fearfulness

[From Pastor Ed… May 2013]

One of our children struggles regularly with fear. Most nights, this one can be found wandering out of their room much later than they should, excusing their stroll with some needless errand: "I needed to get a book" or "I wanted a sip of water" or "I thought I heard a noise." When pressed, they will eventually confess.

"I'm scared."

Half the time, they cannot even name what it is that they are scared of — and often, even if they can say, their fears are irrational and unnecessary. Tornados are not a major threat in Tucson; neither are snake infestations. The creepy urban legend that a playground friend mentioned isn't going to come true, either.

Sometimes, though, their fears are not irrational, but are quite real. No, I can't promise that we won't have a fire. I can't assure them that no one will ever break into our house, or that they are totally safe from kidnapping. And I can't always keep them from being alone.

As frustrating as this regular fearful streak can sometimes be, the truth is that I have my irrational fears too. I know that my fear of needles is totally unreasonable (not that needles are harmless, but what goes through my mind is completely groundless), but it gets me. Every time.

And I have fears that are completely within the bounds of reason. I think we all do. We have social fears: what if I do the wrong thing? Say the wrong thing? What if they stop liking me? Will I embarrass myself?

We have security fears: will I (or someone I love) get seriously ill? What will I do if we don't have enough to pay the bills? How will we make it if I lose my job?

And we have spiritual fears: How will I be able to withstand temptation? What do my doubts and uncertainties mean about my assurance of salvation? Will God stop loving me because of this or that deep, darkest secret?

On my best days, what I tell my child — and what I remind myself — is that God knows our fears. The real ones and the ridiculous ones. And even though I cannot provide all of the security that my child longs for or that I long for, God can. And even more than that, He does.

God doesn't promise me that I'll never get sick, but He promises that lasting and eternal healing is found in Him. He doesn't promise that I will never be in need, but that my truest needs are met — and that He both knows and cares about ALL of my needs. He doesn't promise me freedom from spiritual struggle, but He promises me freedom TO struggle (and He promises His presence with me in the midst of my struggles)!

Some days this is barely enough, and (much like my own child) I wander around in a fearful funk, clinging to the hope of God's promises. And other days it is more than enough, and I am lifted up beyond my fears!

I have fears that, if not unique, are at least more peculiar to me and my particular place and calling. What if the church doesn't make it? Have I totally misjudged my calling? Did I counsel poorly, or fail to serve in the right way, or lead others astray? You probably have particular fears of your own.

God is not indifferent to my peculiar fears, nor is He absent in them. He is not unmoved by your fears, either. Rather, he invites us to call out, like David:
"When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid."
Psalm 56:3-4

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How we talk to one another...

[From Pastor Ed… for April 2013]

…and ABOUT one another.

When Christians get together, we talk! This can be (and usually is) a great thing: we learn about one another, we gain insight into the challenges and victories of each other's recent lives, and we grow closer in fellowship and in our union with the Body of Christ. It's great to talk!

Sometimes, though, talking can lead to problems. Deep problems — though we cannot always recognize them as problems, because they seem benign and, at times, even good for us or others. When we start talking about others, and especially when our talk focuses on problems, complaints, or unresolved conflict, it is almost always a sign that things have taken a harmful turn.

Dividing the Church

When the apostles wrote about what would do damage to Christ's church, naturally they focused on sin. Which sins did they highlight? Not marital infidelity or sexual sins. Not wrong view about social concerns, such as political perspectives or cultural matters. Not issues with leadership, pastoral neglect, or preachers who can't connect with their congregation.

What were the sins that the apostles were concerned would divide the church? What, in Peter and Paul's minds, stood (and stands) in the way of the unity of the Body?
So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

~ 1 Peter 2:1-5

Peter, contrasting with what builds us up into the spiritual house of Christ, highlights the sins that sometimes come among us when we "talk" — malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. Likewise, having spoken at length about challenging the troublesome and divisive sinners among the Corinthian church, Paul says, "For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (2 Corinthians 12:20).

Why were the apostles so concerned about things like gossip, slander, and deceit? Because they knew that these things only served one end goal: to destroy trust among everyone involved.

In a culture where gossip is common, nobody feels safe. When slander is frequent, everyone has the wrong idea about everyone else. When deceit — in the form of half-truths, assumptions, and second (or third) hand knowledge — is passed around, the truth is obscured.

Dealing with Troublesome Talk

Sometimes this can be hard to spot; as I mentioned before, often these problems can creep in under the best of intentions. They can be presented as seemingly-innocuous questions. Or as off-hand comments. Or as prayer requests.

How do we deal with this kind of troublesome talk? We start by checking our own hearts. Jesus said that, when dealing with sin, we should first take the plank out of our own eyes. Thus, we can ask ourselves:
  • Have I considered the problem or concern that I have in the most charitable way? So many conflicts in the church are due to misunderstandings. This is natural; we don't always say things as clearly as we would like or think we have, and we don't always hear others clearly either (because they don't say things as clearly either!). Our first step, then, should be to extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we believe we disagree; This takes trust, and when trust has been threatened it takes humility and grace.
  • Am I talking to the right person about this? This may not be clear, but often it is. And if the person we are talking to isn't the one we are talking about, we should ask the next question; otherwise, it is usually best to refrain from speaking to anyone but the person our concerns or complaints are with.
  • Is what I'm about to say vital to the health of the relationships or circumstances I am speaking of? Sometimes we need to insert ourselves into situations that don't involve us — but those times are rare. A good rule of thumb is: if I'm not part of the problem or part of the solution, I probably shouldn't be part of the conversation. If it does involve me, and if I'm talking to the right person, I should then ask…
  • Is what I am about to say something that will build others up, or tear them down? The Bible says we are to encourage one another and build each other up. If we have a concern or a complaint, we should take care to say it in a way that builds others up. One study showed that, if we want others to hear critique in a constructive way, it should be accompanied by at least five words of affirmation!

We must check ourselves — and it is also helpful if we keep each other accountable by gently and lovingly checking them as well, when they are talking to us in ways that suggest that one or more of the questions above haven't been considered carefully.

How do we do that? When others speak with us about concerns, complaints, or problems that do not directly involve us — which is to say, when others begin to gossip to us — we should ask them*:
  • Have you spoken with ___ about this? If someone tells you something about someone else, you have a responsibility to determine whether they are handling their dispute with their brother or sister in a manner that is consistent with Scripture — and if they are not, then you have a responsibility to challenge them with the next question…
  • When are you going to talk to them about this? If they haven't spoken with the offending party, you must insist that they do so. If they do not feel that they can, you might consider offering to go with them for support. And whether they agree or resist, you have a moral obligation to the next question…
  • Now that you have morally-obligated me to be involved, how long should I wait before speaking with ___ about this? Loose talk cannot persist in a healthy body, and therefore you now have an obligation to follow up with the offending party to make sure that they were indeed spoken with. If things have reached this point, please don't leave it completely in the hands of the one gossiping; if they lacked the conviction to speak directly with the other in the first place, they may not have it in them to handle it properly in a prompt manner. But to let things linger only makes the situation worse. Thus, you must finally ask them…
  • You're okay with me telling ___ that I heard this from you — right? This is the only way for you to be sure that, eventually, the problem, concern, or complaint will eventually be handled between those it needs to be, and that true reconciliation can be pursued. Of course this is not the most healthy way for all of this to end up, but things are already unhealthy because of the presence of gossip among you.

Finally, having checked ourselves and each other, we can also check the facts. A blogger named Ron Edmondson has posted several times about how we should consider the content of gossip and rumor when they come our way (see his posts here and here). Here are a few things that he mentions:
Not all rumors are true. Most aren't.

People like to expand on what they know. Or think they know.

Some people enjoy telling others “the good stuff”. With practice, some have even learned to make things bigger and “better” than they really are.

There is usually more to the story than what you know. But it may or may not be what your mind stretches it to be.
Many people never consider the ramifications of what they are saying.

The only reliable source is the direct source.

These are good words from Pastor Edmondson. And if we put these three checks in place, we will go far in avoiding the division and devastation that can plague Christ's church.

* These questions are adapted from my recollection of Dan Phillips's post about gossip at the Team Pyro blog. (Thanks to Tim Burden for reminding me where they came from!)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Should we discipline?

In light of recent conversations and other events in our congregation, the question of whether church discipline is appropriate has arisen among some of our members. Should we discipline?

My answer, of course, is "yes" — not least, because the very idea of being Christ's "disciples" is that we are people devoted to spiritual discipline. (Did you note the shared root of the words disciple and discipline?)

We do well to keep in mind that when we refer to "discipline" generally we mean many things. We say that children are to be disciplined when they are shown their errors and corrected in them; that soldiers are people of discipline when they function well as a part of a larger unit; and that a musician is disciplined who devotes herself to the study and practice of her craft. All of these are true descriptors, also, of the discipline that those who profess their faith in Christ must be given to take up.

This is why, in the vows of membership that we ask of everyone seeking to unite with the local church in faith, we ask, "do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?" (emphasis added). The discipline that is expected of believers is part and parcel to our faith's expression, and it requires the accountability of the local church for it to be properly exercised.

This kind of accountability is assumed by Jesus of His disciples. Consequently, we find the kind of discipline that becomes publicly enacted in churches: someone who is obstinate in their sin, refusing to receive or accept the accountability of the church, is brought into some state of discipline; maybe they are barred from the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a time, or perhaps they are excommunicated (which is to say, they are removed from the membership of the local church and regarded as unbelievers). How else could the church — or any individual believer — claim to be faithful to Jesus' explicit teaching in Matthew 18:15-20?

One thing to note here, though: while this corrective sort of discipline is the most public sort that is seen in the church (and the most difficult to handle and accept by the membership), it shouldn't be the only sort of discipline that is found in the local church. The other kinds — of devoted study and practice of the faith, and of the proper functioning of each member as part of a larger unit — must also be present. These are seldom highlighted or even recognized by the whole body, so it can be tempting to assume that they aren't present — or that the leadership of the church rushed to the corrective kind of discipline.

Here a certain degree of trust and benefit of the doubt is required for the leadership; first, that they were patient, gentle, and loving in their encouragement of discipline, and second, that the need for corrective discipline was met with a humble, pastoral spirit. Inevitably, there are more details that the members of the church don't know; there was a lot of attention and care given to the process of discipline that cannot be adequately conveyed in an announcement. As with so many things in the church, assuming that something wasn't done — or that it was done poorly — simply because one wasn't a part of the process is presumptuous, and it may also become sinful, when attitudes and/or conversations are divisive and contrary to our vow for submitting ourselves to the church's leadership and to its purity and peace.

Finally, we should keep in mind that discipline always has the aim of building up and growing true believers in their faith, and of reminding unbelievers of their need. While it can be hard to accept that discipline is what is needed, we should ask: which is more loving? To allow someone to remain in their sin, and leave it unaddressed? Or to urge and plead with them to turn from it — and be willing to be uncompromising in our hope for their righteousness? Though it seems counterintuitive, biblical discipline does affect the restoration and turning from sin that we desire and pray for; those of us who have seen it done have also seen the work of God's blessing in it.

Parents who love their children will sometimes say to them in a moment of discipline, "this hurts me more than it hurts you." So it is with the church (and leadership) that disciplines its members. We don't relish it, but we should do it. We MUST do it.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Can non-members take Communion?

…And should they?

I was recently asked by a fellow pastor for my opinion on this topic. He commented (regarding our denomination's polity about who may be admitted to the table of the Lord's Supper), "BCO 58.4 offers us the option of inviting members of a gospel-believing church to participate in the Supper or the option of closed communion. After fencing the table do the elders have a further responsibility to withhold the sacrament from people they know are not members anywhere? Why or why not?"

This is a GREAT question. What do we do with people who have never bothered to join the local church? Should they be permitted to take Communion?

Here's what I said: The BCO structures it the way it does so that Sessions will have the option of choosing for themselves, according to their own convictions (or one could say, so that Sessions would be FORCED to choose for themselves). Most PCA churches have opted (actively or passively) for open Communion, though even this takes different forms.

In my own practice, I almost always say something to the effect of, "this Sacrament is not only for members of ___ church, but for all believers in Christ. Therefore, if you are a member in good standing of a Bible-believing church, we bid you to come and dine."

Now, in my previous congregation, this declaration actually was used of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction to one regular attender's heart, who was not a member anywhere. She came and asked whether she could, in good conscience, take the Sacrament — and I told her that I didn't see any reason why she couldn't/shouldn't join the church and soothe her conscience! So she did, before the next time we served Communion (which we did monthly there).

I know that many will argue that 1 Corinthians 11's warnings about "discerning the body" are the basis by which we should demand an active profession of faith from communicants, i.e., why we shouldn't offer paedocommunion, etc. However, the best exegesis I've seen on that passage actually takes it another direction (based, at least in part, on context): that it isn't about discerning the body of Christ in the elements — understanding His sacrifice on our behalf — as much as discerning the body of Christ in the communion of the saints. In other words, when we take Communion without a clear awareness of the local church and its life together, we are in danger of eating and drinking judgment on ourselves.

Thus, I believe that Elders DO have a responsibility, when the know people are not members, to urge them to rectify that (by offering a profession of faith for membership) in order to protect them from judgment. This serves them well, too, in that their profession of faith is tested and verified by the local church, and not just a matter of their own opinion — and thus, they will know objectively that they are rightly partaking of the Sacrament that is clearly intended to be taken by those who are in union with Christ.

Beyond that, though, I wouldn't go further. The above would, on its face, be a good argument in favor of close or closed Communion, but I stop short of advocating that because:
  1. we inevitably have frequent visitors who are, indeed, members in good standing of a Bible-believing church — and we should rejoice in the fellowship that we share in Communion;
  2. we've generally done a very poor job (for several generations now) of teaching more comprehensively about the primacy and implications of church membership, and to get to the point where close Communion is appropriate (in light of the above) demands a better and more comprehensive high view of membership — both in our own congregations and in all/most others;
  3. the circumstance you describe — where Elders know for sure that there are people taking Communion who are not members anywhere — assumes a relationship between those people and the Elders, or at least one Elder; in which case, there is already the context for the sort of conversation I described to take place.

[That's the end of my response to my friend.]

How should we approach it, then? Are we to conclude that, because our culture has eschewed a high view of the local church, Paul's warnings no longer are in effect? No — but we should approach it more comprehensively, teaching the importance of the local church and the implications of membership (or lack of it). We should approach it more pastorally, exercising concern for "weaker brothers" who don't (yet) see the emphasis that Scripture places on the local church. And we should approach it relationally, working in an organic way to come alongside one another to urge the vitality of healthy church life — and thereby avoiding the pitfalls of formalistic, legislative approaches to such problems.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On Dependence and Christ

[From Pastor Ed… 2/24]

"When Christ became a man, was He really dependent on God?"

In the last week, three different people from our congregation have asked me this same question (or some variation of it). Some of the members of our church are studying Paul Miller's excellent book, A Praying Life, and Miller addresses this topic within the first few chapters. His take on it is striking and, well, startling to some, because it declares a kind and degree of dependence that we often do not associate with Jesus.

In chapter 5, "Spending Time with Your Father," Miller asks the question, why did Jesus need to pray? He offers three reasons, and the third is apparently a sticky one for many of us! Miller's third reason for why Jesus needed to pray is: His limited humanity.

Wait — what? How could Jesus, who was fully God, be limited? That's probably the thought that immediately runs through your head (like it did mine the first time I read this book). We don't think of Jesus this way, because we have been taught well what heresy it is to believe that Jesus was not fully God! Jesus must have been God — otherwise He could not have accomplished all that He did, right? Right — and to believe that Jesus was not divine is called "Arianism" (not to be confused with the racial theory Aryanism) which was denounced as heresy at the Council of Nicaea. This is why the Nicene Creed has so many phrases like "fully God," "begotten, not made," and "being of one substance with the Father."

We're not helped by the fact that those who tend to lean in a more liberal direction, theologically, prefer to focus on the humanity of Christ. Because we get a bit squeamish about dipping our toe in waters usually inhabited by theological liberals, we find it easier just to focus on the deity of Christ.

But even as Jesus was God, He was just as much man! The Nicene Creed affirms not only "fully God" but also "fully man." And in His humanity Jesus takes our form, including our dependence. This is a challenge to us; one reason is that we wrestle to think of Jesus in the way that the Bible talks about Him in His humanity. When Christ took on flesh, He also took on our dependence on God and our susceptibility to sin and brokenness. "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:6-7).

When Scripture says that Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3), we think that "acquainted" means something like how we use it: when we are acquainted with someone, we may have met them a few times, but we don't know them well. But the Hebrew word we've translated "acquainted" is a form of the verb yadah, "to know," which is also used to talk about knowing skills, as in a musician who knows his instrument; about knowing good and evil, as in what the Tree of Knowledge imparted to us; and even knowing God, involving our intellect, worship, obedience, and devotion. This was the degree to which Jesus was acquainted with our grief.

When Jesus wept, it wasn't to put on a show. When Jesus was tempted, it wasn't any different from the temptations we face. When Jesus wrestled with the difficulty of God's calling and will for Him to die on the cross, it was no mere show of piety. Jesus fully and really experienced all of the suffering, pain, frustration, struggle, temptation, anger, and grief that we do. Hebrews 4:15 declares this: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."

Aha — and now we are finally getting at the bigger reason why we struggle with this: we find it all but impossible to wrap our minds around the possibility that Jesus knew the same temptations, struggles, grief — the same humanity — that we know, as intimately as we know it, and yet He did not sin. Because if we're honest with ourselves, we can't imagine living our own lives, even for a day, without sinning.

Yet He did. And as a result of this, four things emerge as truths that ought to be precious to us:
  • Our view of Jesus' righteousness goes way up! When we begin to grasp just how real Christ's humanity was, the righteousness that He maintained in spite of it soars to new heights. Such righteousness is almost incomprehensible to us!
  • A spotlight is shown on our own sin. We have to realize that where Christ is in His righteousness, and where we are in our lack of it, are quite far from one another. In the presence of true purity and holiness, the soiled and tainted lives that we inhabit are more clearly seen by comparison.
  • The righteousness that Christ gained becomes ours! Far from being left in the misery of our sin's reality, we are lifted out of it and cleansed of our sin, and then — glory of glories! — we are given the very righteousness of Christ that we marvel at His capacity to obtain. Just as our sin becomes His sin, through the imputation of the cross His righteousness becomes OUR righteousness — and when God looks on us, He sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
  • Our dependence on God — and God's dependability — becomes more real. When we see how Christ, in dependence upon the Father, was able to face all of His very real and true humanity and do so without sin, then we also learn how WE might find victory over sin in dependence on God. As Christ overcame, so we can also overcome temptation and sin.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What's the deal with written prayers?

[From Pastor Ed… 2/10 and 2/17]

One of the topics that I've noticed has come up somewhat regularly in the last several months is that of "written" prayers. Are they unbiblical? Are they good for us? Are we allowed to use them in worship? How about outside of worship?

It's interesting to me that this would come up recently, because (from what I have been told) written, prepared prayers have been used by Dove Mountain Church in worship from the very start: at very least, our corporate prayer of Confession of Sin has always been a written prayer. During the time when DMC was without a pastor, I understand that the Ruling Elders would regularly close the worship service with a "closing prayer" wherein they essentially took a word of Benediction and converted it, so to speak, into a prayer — which I suppose amounts to another kind of written prayer. Likewise, the Pastoral Prayers that we have are, if not fully written out, at least "scripted" insofar as they are based on a prepared list and (at least some of the time) the one praying has made extensive notes on how and what he shall pray for this list.

So why has it come up more recently? I think there are two reasons: first, we've begun to use more of them, especially adding them into our Prayer of Thanksgiving at the beginning of the Communion celebration, and also for our Prayer of Consecration immediately following Communion. This increase in prominence and use has necessarily drawn attention to our use of written prayers. Secondly (and perhaps more significantly in some people's minds), some of the written prayers we use for our Prayer of Thanksgiving are very similar to prayers that are also used in other Christian traditions, most notably the Roman Catholic tradition.

I suppose it is understandable that the second reason raises serious concerns for some. In many church traditions — and, frankly, especially in many of those that our people grew up in — anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church is considered caustic and dangerous. For others who grew up Roman Catholic, anything that echoes that tradition in any way may stir up memories and feelings that are challenging and perhaps distracting to worship. So it makes sense that artifacts that "feel" Roman Catholic are polarizing, fairly or unfairly.

Nevertheless, one of the great identities of the church is that we are "catholic" — not in the denominational sense, so much as in the sense that the word means "universal". Which is why we make use of some of the same prayers as Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans: all of us are drawing on a tradition that is deeper than any of the various expressions of denominational identity for the last 500 years. That particular prayer is called the Sursum Corda which means (in Latin), "Lift up your hearts" — so called because that phrase is one of the opening lines. The content of that prayer is almost entirely taken from Scripture, either as direct quotes or as paraphrase.

And that leads us to the question, "are written prayers biblical?" The answer, unequivocally, is YES! In fact, between the Lord's Prayer and the 150 psalms (which were something like a Book of Common Prayer for the Old Testament church, the people of Israel), it would be difficult to make a case that there is no example of written prayers in the Bible.

Which is not to say that every written prayer that we use, or that is "out there" in some form (including in books like the Book of Common Prayer and the more Presbyterian-oriented Book of Common Worship) is a direct quote or paraphrase of Scripture, though many are. But it does show that written prayers are not unbiblical in principle.

Are they good for us? Are we allowed to use them in worship? Well, first consider that the alternative is what we might call impromptu prayer or, at best, extemporaneous prayer. In other words, we pray whatever comes to mind with little or no guidance. Sometimes this can go very well; at other times, not so much. Most of us have probably been in circumstances where someone is praying aloud, in public, and they either a) prays with many words, but saying very little; b) prays the same thing over and over, or c) prays something inaccurate, inappropriate, or even unbiblical! (Or some combination of these three.)

On the other hand, prepared prayers give the "pray-er" a freedom to devote himself to the act of prayer, because he doesn't need to concentrate on the content of his prayers. In the context of a corporate prayer, it allows the congregation to participate in praying aloud, rather than leaving all of the vocal praying to the leader. And — as I alluded to before — it also enables us to embrace historically-significant prayers and texts that connect us with the wider church.

Can we use written prayers in other contexts besides worship? Absolutely. Some have found that written prayers and prayer books introduce a discipline of praying in new (to them) and different ways than the methods that they learned previously. Sometimes we feel stuck in a "rut" of prayer, and written prayers may in those times introduce us to new directions of prayer that help us get unstuck. At other times, some have said that circumstances — perhaps especially difficult and trying times — are so challenging that they find they cannot pray on their own; in such times, written prayers can be a guide and friend, leading us back to Christ when we feel distant from Him.

Over the years, I've used a variety of collections of written prayers in my own devotional life, I believe to very helpful effect. Early on, I learned that many hymnals contain (usually toward the back) a sort of miniature version of the books of "common prayer" or "common worship" mentioned earlier; these can, of course, be used devotionally for private prayer (as can the hymns themselves!). While in college, I was also introduced to a beautiful collection of puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. I have used the daily offices printed on the Book of Common Prayer, as well as collections such as Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours set. There are others, too, as well as books such as Eugene Peterson's Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer and Stanley Jaki's Praying the Psalms: a Commentayr which are helpful in learning to use the psalter for personal (and corporate) prayer, and Phillip Graham Ryken's When You Pray: Making the Lord's Prayer Your Own for deepening our use of the prayer Jesus taught His disciples.

Monday, January 14, 2013

What does it mean to be "presbyterian"?

[From Pastor Ed… 1/13/2013 and 1/20/2013]

I once had a conversation with my friend Robert, in which we were talking about understanding our theological and ecclesiastical identities. I asked him how he would answer someone if, stopping at the back door of his church to greet him after worship, they asked him, "what does it mean to be a presbyterian?"

Such a context doesn't allow for nuance or elaboration, and I wanted him to give me the 50-words-or-less answer — not the eight-week-Sunday-School-class answer. He got that, and accommodated me.

"That I know my own tendency to sin, and therefore I need the Body of Christ to keep me straight."

Presbyterians are fond of saying that a presbyterian church is a "connectional" church, and I think this — what my friend told me — is what we mean by that: we are connected to one another, and that connection is vital to our spiritual health, growth, and survival. The Body of Christ is a connected body, and each part needs the rest (Romans 12).

It seems to me that this should be a natural result of our conversion and faith in Christ. Once we recognize our dependence on Christ, we begin to realize also that, in a sense, we cannot completely trust ourselves. Overconfidence in my own abilities — even those abilities to do and understand and be very good things, like reading the Bible, praying, refraining from sin, giving glory to God — is the path to spiritually-treacherous ground.

I may be absolutely confident, for example, that I understand a certain Bible passage, only to learn from others that I missed a key point or downplayed the central theme. I might believe that I know the right way to pray for someone, but then I will hear the prayer for them of a fellow Christian and be challenged at how feeble my own prayer was. I could think myself invulnerable to a particular sin, only to be tempted in the presence of a brother or sister who then encourages me and prays for me about it. I may even take confidence that my service is fully devoted to Christ's glory, then later be challenged by the awareness of pride and haughtiness that is exposed by a comment from another believer which wasn't even directed at me.

Thus, I need the Body. And in those moments when I don't think I need the Body, when I feel the greatest confidence in myself, when I believe more in my own ability than I do in the Gospel — in those times I need the Body all the more!

This is true for all Christians, of course. While our cultural tendencies lead us to think individually and with ever-increasing confidence in ourselves — and while the truths of our individual role in our relationship and faith in Christ are an essential part of our Christianity — we do well to hold these in tension with our deep need and dependence upon Christ and, therefore, on His Body. Remember that Jesus exhorts us, in Luke 18:14, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

We mustn't view the Church as an optional benefit to our faith; rather, we must recognize the Church for what it is, according to Scripture: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27). If we are dependent upon Christ, then we are inevitably dependent upon His body.

Of course, there is more nuance and explanation to being presbyterian than this. But if you get this, you are far along the way to understanding the vital nature of the church!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bits and Tidbits, New Year's 2013 edition

A few of the better articles I've read recently…
"Father of the Year" by Tom Junod. Here's a great profile of John Lassiter, the founder and ongoing head of Pixar.
"I grew up with guns, then I was held hostage by one" by Haley B. Elkins. There's a complexity to the idea of gun ownership that a lot of the politics seems to miss.
"What Duck Commander is really selling" by Rob Sumrall. Interesting piece here on the folks who most of the world loves to laugh at (and with) on "Duck Dynasty."
"My father's 'eviscerated' work — son of Hobbit scribe J.R.R. Tolkien finally speaks out" by Raphaëlle Rérolle. This fascinating interview (of sorts) says a lot about what the Tolkien family thinks of the movies…
"Hey extraverts: enough is enough!" by Alan Jacobs. One of the great essayists of our time does it again, this time exposing the ego-centrism of the extravert!
"Open Mike: Texas wants to secede" by Mike Johnston. An interesting rumination on what might be involved in an actual state secession.
"Suffering Fools Gladly" by David Brooks. Great insight here into a needed change in the way we think of others whom we deem "fools".
"Les Misérables, Reviewed" by Dana Stevens. Not everyone loves this musical; Stevens describes my own thoughts about the music of this show, and her review resonates with my own concerns about what I will probably think of the movie.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why "Js" Struggle with Holidays

Now that the holidays are all behind us, I've been reflecting a bit on why holidays always seem taxing to me. I think I've put my finger on it, at least in part: it has to do with personality and temperament. Please allow me a slightly wonky, Andy Rooney-style rant…

According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, my temperament is "INTJ" — and it's the "J" that I have been focusing on. This last dichotomy, between "J" (judging) and "P" (perceiving), focuses on lifestyle: how we relate to the outside world, particularly in terms of order, structure, flexibility, and open-mindedness.

"P" types tend to be the easy-going, "go with the flow" folks; they prefer flexibility, and often don't conform well with structure or schedules. "Js" on the other hand are orderly and highly-structured, and frequently are frustrated when structure is too loose and/or schedules ill-maintained.

As a "J", then, I love my structure. I like my schedule and my routine. And herein is the rub: to a "J" like me, the holidays represent a disruption in all of my orderliness. My routines are interrupted by out of the ordinary events and tasks and other kinds of more flexible demands. Some examples…
  • Extra days off mean that my regular schedule is off. It usually takes me a week or two to feel "settled" back into my routine schedule.
  • During Christmas, the extra worship service on Christmas Eve is a wonderful treat — but it's also a variation that challenges the "J" mindset.
  • Even things like meals can throw things off; if we have a holiday feast, it is usually in the early afternoon — not at lunchtime, but at 2 or 3pm — and then I'm seldom hungry enough for a full supper at the usual time for the evening meal.

Interestingly, the other aspects of a temperament also affect this. The first dichotomy, between "I" (introversion) and "E" (extraversion), describes attitudes — which is to say, how we are affected by being around others or being alone. Introverts are energized by being alone, and drained by being with others; meanwhile, extraverts are drained by being alone and energized when with others.

So, introverted "Js" like me will find the highly-relational nature of holidays draining in a particular way, and that will affect how we respond to the changes in structure and order that attend (as I described above). On the other hand, extraverted "Js" will be energized, and thus might find great delight in creating new, ad-hoc structures, schedules, and plans for these holiday times.

My mother and sister, both fellow "Js" and both extraverts, are perfect examples of the latter description: they love holidays for the opportunity to create great plans with all of the family and friends they are with. (A disclaimer here: I'm not suggesting that I dislike the relational aspects of the holidays — I'm simply describing why I don't respond to them exactly the way that others might.)

Of course, as has been well-established, extraverts expect everyone to think like them — so that part is probably not going to change anytime soon! But at the next holiday, perhaps some of my tens of readers might consider the poor "J" (and especially the "E" and "J" combination) and suffer me — er, him — a little bit more gladly, now that you understand this particular quirk of our temperament!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Books for December 2012

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter #3)Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot that I like about this one, and I appreciate that the editing kept the writing tighter here (which, as I recall, is less and less the case after this part of the series). Also there are a lot of key elements to the overall story introduced here: Sirius Black, the Marauder’s Map, Cho Chang, the Patronus… good work is done in laying the foundation for the rest of the story arc.

One thing about this one that bugs me is how there are several times when a certain tidiness makes the book less enjoyable: the “perfect day” of the Quiddich match, for example, or how easily and readily Ron and Hermione reconcile after such a long dispute. While it feels a little silly to say this about a fantasy novel, the plausibility is threatened, I think, by these too-easy moments.

We’re going to take a break with Jack for a while on the series. Marcie and I agree that, after #3, the degree and intensity of the darker elements of the story increases substantially; I’m not sure he is ready for that.

The Wide Window (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #3)The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another in the series that I’ve been reading to Molly. This one, even more than the rest, left a sense of the tension that not everything has a happy ending, not everything wraps up nicely by the end of the book. Because of this, I find that this series is increasingly valuable to read to her (and Jack, when he sits in on them): it teaches the reality of life’s complexity in a helpful and kid-friendly way.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural FormationDesiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Usually there is a single book (very occasionally two) that rises to the top of the list of most significant books I’ve read in the past year; in 2011 it was James Davidson Hunter's To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In 2012, it was definitely this book.

The insights and value I took away from this one could fill an essay in themselves, so it would be ridiculous to try to even summarize them here. What prevailed as an overarching idea throughout the whole book was, “how refreshing that Smith is willing to suggest that, perhaps, we’ve been thinking about this all wrong for the last couple of generations.” Smith’s take on spiritual formation and “worldview” alone is worth reading the whole book.

I have a friend who felt this one didn’t end as well as it started; he said he will reserve judgment, knowing that Smith intends this to be part one of a three-part book series. I disagree with that, as I felt the book finished at least as strongly as it started (and for various reasons I thought the concluding chapter was thoroughly satisfying in every way except the abrupt ending). But I do share his sense that the final word on this book will come as the other two books are added to it; as such, I’m excited about Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, and have already pre-ordered my copy.

I took my time with this one, wanting to savor and process it in bits and pieces rather than rush through it. I’m glad I did, though I do wish I had not taken quite as long. I do recommend a measured pace, however.

The Cider House Rules: A NovelThe Cider House Rules: A Novel by John Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I find John Irving one of the better writers/authors of our day. He has a great way with character development, and his capacity for weaving an engaging plot is artful. I’ve now read several of his novels, and also seen a couple of the movies based on his books; his stories are the kind that draw you in and keep you attached.

This was good; an interesting story, and well-told, with intriguing characters and an enjoyable plot. Irving has a frankness about sexual things, and is willing to poke at some of the more sensitive spots in our culture — so it didn’t surprise me that The Cider House Rules contained some edgy scenes. Still, there were a few that were bordering on bawdy, and it struck me as the kind of book I would rather my kids not read anytime soon. This was a contrast to A Prayer for Owen Meany, which (while still containing some of the frankness) didn’t quite have that “I might be embarrassed if someone were to read over my shoulder” quality that this one did.

I remember when the movie rendition of this story came out (I didn’t see it), and there was some sensation surrounding it with regards to the topic of abortion and how the book/movie allegedly is a “pro-choice” propaganda piece. That is certainly a central topic in the book, and folks who prefer to think of abortion as an ethically-simple, straightforward issue will probably be offended by the implication that there may be some moral/ethical complexity to the positions of those who are pro-choice. But the story and book are far from a propaganda piece, despite the eventual favorable posture toward abortion.

I enjoyed the book, and I’m glad I read it. It’s not for everyone, and maybe not the best introduction to John Irving’s fine writing.

The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joan Didion’s writing is exquisite; while her style is different from others (and without having read very many memoirs, I can’t say that I recognize Didion’s style as typical of the genre), it is magnetic and intimate. The account of her year of magical thinking is haunting and raw, with echoes of my own experiences with grief and mourning — and of those I have seen and known in others — that assured me throughout the book that Didion knew the same sort of spiritual and emotional process that I (and others) have also experienced.

If you seek answers, explanations, rationalizations, or clinical/self-help styled counsel for a recent loss, this book will not serve your needs. If you long for assurance that your pain and struggle are not abnormal — that you’re not going crazy — and the companionship of someone who has traveled the rocky path you find yourself on without the questions or platitudes or expectations that too often accompany any companionship during such a season, Joan Didion will accommodate your needs through this, her own story.

View all my reviews