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.

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