Monday, August 15, 2011

Mama Maggie

          Willow Creek Church is not known for its mysticism, theological concerns or Charismatic piety. It gained its reputation from modeling church growth techniques, promoting leadership theory and demonstrating an interesting, media-driven post-modern Christian aesthetic.
I have never been attracted to that model.
Last week however, I found myself at a Willow Creek event. It was sponsored by People's Church in Franklin, Tennessee. While this is a community I respect, I actually attended the event because my friend, Bruce Grubbs, (who pastors a great church in Gladeville) invited me. He is a great guy. If he asks me to do something, I try to do it.
Anyway, there were several hundred people at People's Church when I arrived, all staring at the video feed from Willow Creek. I sat down and began watching the screen. After a short worship set, Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek, began introducing the morning speaker.
"When we were planning this event, it was the following session that made me the most nervous," he said. "Leadership at high levels usually is packaged in highly driven and self- assured people. But Mama Maggie Gobran just doesn't fit that picture. I finally conceded because I believe I may have received a sign from God about it. She is often called the Mother Theresa of Cairo.  Please receive her."
                As the people clapped, a middle aged, fair skinned woman, dressed from head to toe in white, came to the podium. She paused, looked out over the crowd and bowed in prayer.
                She then spoke for about thirty minutes. She said some marvelous things that you can find easily enough on the internet. But it was not words that began creating a sense of awe among those who heard her. It was presence. Something was pouring out of her, through her, and into those who were listening to her.
                When she finished speaking, she said, "I don't know about how you work for God here. So I would like to end my presentation by blessing your church. I want to ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and your church." She then bowed to the ground, touched her head to the floor and lay there prostrate for some time.
                As she lay there, the congregation at Willow Creek (and at the People's Church) slowly began to rise to their feet. Soon, we were all standing silently, bathing in the holiness of the moment.
                Bill Hybels finally spoke, trying to control his emotions. His words were wonderful. It was obvious that he had experienced what we had all experienced in those few moments.
                In my last blog, Does God Exist, I asked whether it was fair that unbelievers should expect to observe some quality in those who believe God, and in those societies where believers predominate; that is different than in people and societies that do not believe. I asked if there was any other real “proof” of God’s existence.
                The morning after writing that blog, I prayed for guidance and help with that question.
                Maggie Gobran was my answer.
She is very smart.  But that is not the answer. She also helps people but that is not the answer. The answer to my question is holiness, the "whatever-it-is" that radiates from a person who decides to walk in humble submission in the ways of God. Mother Gobran did not scold or condemn, and certainly did not force her way. Nonetheless, when she finished speaking, everyone watching her suddenly wanted what she has and wanted it more than anything else on earth.
                "I was a very unlikely choice for this calling," she said. "I was wealthy, educated and loved high fashion. When my aunt told me that she thought God was calling me to ministry, all of my friends laughed out loud. So I decided to do two things: I would read the Bible from start to finished and then read it again, over and over, for the rest of my life. And, I would seek the presence of God. As I did these two things, I began to experience the Lord's guidance."
                "As you learn God’s Word, learn to enter the silence. Silent your body to hear your thoughts. Silence your thoughts to hear your heart. Silence your heart to hear your spirit. Silence your spirit to hear God."
                In the end, we must accept the fact that spirituality is either a way of comforting ourselves with fables and mythology or it is the core of reality. What cannot be true; what must be in fact utterly false; is a flirtation with spiritual things while living one's life as if spiritual knowledge and experience makes no practical difference. That path is increasingly repugnant to me. It may even be evil. It certainly bears bad fruit. But that is the path of much too much of the church stuff we Christian people experience.
                Our moralizing, programming, politicizing, power-playing, cliché-uttering,  church-as-corporation stance offers nothing to the world but the same sort of thing people already experience in any theater, rock concert, bank or political rally.  So learning to do what we already do, but better, is a bankrupt path. I don’t want any more technique that will help me do what I am doing, but better.
What I want to know is if any of this is real. And I want to have the courage to either give it up if it is not real or thoroughly embrace it if it is.
I want to stop “halting between two opinions,” as the prophet Elijah puts it.
                If the Bible is to be believed, we are amphibious creatures, sort of like frogs. We are made to live in this natural world. We are also made to live in a spiritual world, to periodically breathe the air of eternity. What we call that eternal atmosphere is “holiness.” When people breathe in holiness, whether saint or sinner, they become enchanted. It is the “what-I-have-been-looking-for-all-my-life-but-couldn’t-name-it” stuff and everyone recognizes it when he or she encounters it.
                But back to the question of my previous blog: Does God exist?
Yes, I saw him last Friday, peeking through the eyes of a beautiful Egyptian woman. He looked at me through her and then I looked back at Him. And I fell in love again with that other time and place that surrounds my early life.
                This holy enchantment is not meant to be an escape from this world; it's meant to be an orientation to true north as we navigate our journey through this world. It teaches us to delight in this world and make a meaningful contribution to it as we reach beyond it.  
                It's a glimpse of reality, a remembrance of all that matters.
                Cairo, a city of fear, oppression, poverty, rage and persecution of the saints; houses a secret. There is a woman there who represents a people in whom the God of glory shines. They are the children of another unlikely saint: a failed missionary once fired by the apostle Paul, never-do-well floundering young leader who let chance after chance go but who finally became the writer of the second gospel and gave his life on the streets of Alexandria.
                One of his daughters is doing it again. Through her life, the same Lord who peeks through the pages of St. Mark’s gospel, is touching the poor of Cairo.
Thank God, He doesn’t forget those of us who are poor in spirit.
This week he spoke through a woman from Cairo and said, “Come closer. Closer. Yet closer.
Now take a breath and live.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Does God Exist?

Could I have possibly asked a more provocative question?

“Yes!” says the believer.

“No!” says the unbeliever.

Then each begins accumulating evidence to support their conclusion.

For the most part, the argument between belief and unbelief does not advance much beyond this point.
I am a believer; I see evidence of God’s presence everywhere.

I can comfort myself that my view is decidedly the majority one. Probably, the percentage of people who have lived on this planet and who have believed in some sort of superhuman intelligence, force or Universal Being is over 99%. We seem hardwired to believe in God, or something like God.

However, I happen to be a member of the Western World. I also live in the 21st century. In the small subset of human civilization in which I live, the percentage of people who disbelieve in God’s existence is quite high, relatively speaking. Furthermore, this group occupies the fields of human inquiry that require the greatest amount of raw intelligence and focused theoretical development: paleontology, neurology, physics, biology, and the like. They are really smart and informed.

Alarmingly for believers anyway, many people in such fields find no evidence for God’s existence.
I am not as intelligent or as learned as many of those people. However, I am learned enough and intelligent enough to realize it is not data alone that has convinced them there is no God. Like all human beings at all levels, these intelligent people have made an interpretive choice through which they now view the data.

Of course, believers do the same thing.

There is no scientific test or experiment which can prove or disprove the existence of God. That is a fact.

For example, scientists working on the genome project have come to different conclusions about God from the very same data. All of them have concluded that DNA is a complicated language constructed from four simple “letters.” These “letters” carry the blueprint of all living creatures. Language implies intelligence. Just as binary language (two numbers) is the root of all computer computations, DNA is the language for all biological development.  Binary is a language humans developed. But who or what constructed DNA? Some say Random Natural Selection; others say “GOD.”

Some believers are unhappy with either conclusion. After all, the believers who worked on the Genome project still insist that the earth is not young and that biological evolution is no longer a hypothesis. But we will leave that for now.

If I were to develop a test for the existence of God, it would be this: do people who know God flourish and develop in ways that those who do not know Him don’t? Do societies that contain large percentages of people who follow God’s ways flourish more than those that don't? Does this flourishing include all parts of life? Are Christian societies, or Jewish ones, or Muslim ones; more just, kind, intelligent, wise, well-ordered, or developed than humanist or agnostic societies? 

In other words, if the data of neurology, biology or other fields of human inquiry is inconclusive where faith in God is concerned, then should we not see in the societies developed by believers a different sort of quality, some sort of “cant-put-my-finger-on-it-but-this-is-better” quality? And wouldn’t that quality suggest the presence of some agent that is missing in other societies?

And yet, what do we see? In our country at least, we see believers avoiding more and more fields of human inquiry. We even see hostility among many believers for those fields. We experience reluctance among many believers to even converse about the possible implications of DNA, quantum mechanics, relativity – indeed for much of the discoveries of the twentieth century.

If God exists and wishes to be known, then there is no field of human inquiry that is not a godly vocation. And, there is no discovery made in those fields that are in opposition to God.  If continental drift occurred and is a clock by which we can measure the passing of geological time, then the discovery of continental drift is something our Creator wanted us to discover. If DNA is a language and we have found the signature of “the Word by which all things exist,” then a believer ought to rejoice. If molecules are constructed from sub-atomic particles that have only potential existence then we should laugh at discovering that we have been mistaken about the nature of reality. Such a discovery moves us to humility and awe. It also indicates that we are growing up and ready for such knowledge.

And if all of this forces us to take another look at the lenses through which we read scripture, then this too is something God meant to occur. He surely doesn’t mean for us to force ourselves to grit our teeth and live in the eighteenth century while using technological gadgets made possible by discoveries we are not allowed to acknowledge.

In fact, if I were an unbeliever, I would conclude from observing the reactions of believers to science and human advance a proof for the nonexistence of God. I would also conclude that since many places that believers dominate do not flourish, this too points toward a proof for God’s non-existence.

I began this reflection by claiming that the arguments for and against God’s existence are not much more complicated than “yes He does,” and “no He doesn’t.” For too many of us, the next step of the discussion is simply to yell louder or, if possible to pass laws that will keep one another from offering our different opinions in public.

But the argument is really simple: what difference does a belief in God make in the lives of those who serve Him? Is that difference positive or negative?

If Christians don’t face this argument head on; if we keep on entertaining ourselves by sending out louder and louder emails and dumber and dumber sermons; if worship is really a rock concert with a good light show; if a political party is the same thing as the kingdom of God; if we insist that dinosaurs lived at the time of Nimrod, about 5,000 years ago; if poor people are poor mostly because they are lazy; if it is God’s plan that my church have one race and one socio-economic group even though my church is surrounded by other kinds of people; if it’s OK that some of our most Christian influenced counties are the poorest and most intellectually backward counties in the nation: well, we are going to finally help settle the argument about whether there is a God.

We will have conducted the only experiment that is capable of proving the old argument one way or the other. We will then present our evidence: there is no visible sign of God’s presence anywhere, even among those who follow Him.  

He is just a concept that comforts people who are too frightened to face reality.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Betwixt and Between

A couple of weeks ago, Trish and I had lunch with Judy Merwin, a delightful character who exudes energy and optimism. She intended to take us to a Korean restaurant but it turned out that every Korean establishment in Nashville is closed on Tuesdays. (I don’t know if Tuesday is a Korean holy day of some sort or every Korean establishment in our area have made an agreement to be closed the same day. Perhaps there is no explanation.)  Anyway, Red Lobster was her second choice and so that’s where we ended up.

When we were seated, Judy pushed a book into my hands and said, “My children said that you need to read this.”

I quickly looked at the cover.
THIRD CULTURE KIDS: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds; by David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken.

I looked up at this woman, a widow now for many years, and veteran missionary to Korea. She and her husband spent twenty years in that nation. They sold their car to pay for passage on a freighter and arrived with fifty dollars and no promise of income.

That sounds crazy to most people now but I’ve know folks like that all my life. Missionaries used to go abroad with a one way ticket and a suitcase or two. Contrary to the way movies tend to depict them, most of these faith-based missionaries were adventuresome, broad-minded people who believed their faith could change the world. In most cases, they were less narrow-minded than their counterparts at home. Most learned the language of the country in which they lived, became well-read in its literature and history, and very often married their children to the people of their adopted country.

There are not many of them left and when I meet one of them, I listen. I have the very highest respect for them and their work. I know their story has not been depicted well by either religious or secular people. They are not the angels the religious press makes them out to be. They are not the crazy bigoted fools the secular press makes them out to be. They are just believers who like adventure and who are fascinated by other cultures.

“Read it!” She said laughing. “You’ll understand yourself better.”

So I did. I stopped reading everything else on my list and read Third Culture Kids, cover to cover, just because she asked me to. 

A third culture kid is someone who grows up significantly affected by two or more cultures. They can be missionary children, military brats, adopted into a family that is racially different, or have two parents of different nationalities or race. They often speak two languages or more.

They feel rather at home in more than one culture but not fully at home in any.

Check. Check. Check. I am definitely a third culture kid.

I am a patriotic American. My ancestors were all here before the revolutionary war. I love American history and am continually fascinated by the genius of the American political system. (Until this past month, when I began to ponder the advantages of a parliamentary system or perhaps even the return of the monarchy!)

My English is flavored with a slight Appalachian lilt. Who would suspect that sometimes I am searching for an English word that corresponds to the Spanish one that popped into my brain first?

There is no current word in English for example that can replace “asi.” “Thus” is somewhat an equivalent, but sound ponderous in spoken English. Also, there is no current word for tu. “Thou” doesn’t even make it past the spell check!

And what does one do about a craving for ceviche or for the smells of eucalyptus on a cool Andean evening? 

The trouble is, when I was living where all that was available, I missed hot dogs, rhythm and blues, and traffic lights.

Both the richness and the challenges of my life have come from being betwixt and between.

When I returned to live in my native country at age thirty one, I was delighted. This is my home. I love it here. I had no idea that my sojourn in Quito, Managua, Iquitos, and Montréal would never be over, that every part of my life there would live on in relationships; my tastes in food, music and architecture; and the way I experience and proclaim my faith.

I speak three languages in dialects Europeans find amusing because I learned them from farmers, taxi drivers and fellow church members in various parts of North and South America. These languages fight in my head like children: “choose me, no me; I was here first, and so forth.”

I have had the distinct feeling that sometimes people who believe nearly as I do about politics and religion still think I am not quite coming clean with everything. I see it in their eyes: I am holding back; not quite on board with all the things they are absolutely certain about. Something doesn’t seem quite right about the way I fit into a wide variety of worship styles and feel right at home in all of them. Why is it that I like the parts of town where there is a little bit of everything from everywhere? 
I’ve grown to like my globalized culture. Loren Cunningham once laughed at my depiction of feeling “betwixt and between,” and introduced me to the word glocal to ease my frustration. I looked it up. Glocal describes a globally minded person who is rooted in a local culture.

That’s much better than the word I once used to describe myself. A therapist once asked me to sum up my life in one word. Back then, I chose the word “exile.”

I explained that I had always choked up when hearing the 137st Psalm, “How can I sing the song of Zion in a strange land.” I also explained that when I read that Psalm, I hear Bob Marley singing: By the rivers of Babylon.” (If you haven’t heard it, stop reading this blog and go download the song! Goodness gracious, let’s keep our priorities right.)

I have decided that following Christ makes anyone into a third culture kid. We live as loyal citizens in our nation and participate in its culture. However, we are slowly acclimating ourselves to another culture altogether, one that does not always fit neatly into the political and social categories created by our native land. We fit and sometimes don’t fit. We belong and yet don’t belong.

Betwixt and between is the condition of all who take the gospel seriously. Gradually, our loyalties to that other country rise higher than our loyalties to the one in which we live.  Some people are OK with that, others not. And that’s just the way it is.

Ceviche, by the way, is raw fish soaked in lime, garlic and delectable flavors. It can only be properly mixed by a Quecha-speaking person in a bamboo hut as pork sizzles outside on a charcoal fire while a lady wails a melody from a loud speaker about “amor, alma and la vida amarga. “

This just doesn’t mix well with hot dogs covered with chili and slaw, consumed to the sound of Willy Nelson singing To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.

Add Crêpes de Brittany to the sounds of Les Amants du Saint-Laurent  and you will have committed a culinary crime that will make the papers in Paris.

But it’s what makes people like Judy Merwin interesting. And me. And all the wondering nomads and their children and children’s children who make up our fascinating and sometimes difficult-to-navigate way of life.

Exile is not quite the right word. Oh, I found it! It’s E Pluribus Unim. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is a Pastor?

For two decades or so, American churches have been undergoing a dramatic shift. As a result, they are more effective than before, both in how they present their message and how they manage their corporations.  As one who remembers the haphazard manner in which churches were often managed in years past, I applaud those improvements.

This shift has cost us, however. What we have gained in efficiency we have lost in spiritual awareness.

It is the sort of loss one notices in a translation of a great piece of literature. The metaphors, jokes, play on words -- the sort of mysteriously inexplicable stuff that makes a language alive and delightful -- must be sacrificed in order to convey the story to people who speak another tongue. While a great translator may be able to find similar figures of speech, or depict a conversation between two people of different classes in a way that feels similar to the conversation recorded in the original language, a translated story is, in some sense, a new piece of literature. One might even say, the more successful the translation, the more that translation becomes a work of art in it's own right.  

The King James Bible is a good illustration.

One can fault the King James Version from a technical standpoint but the translators succeeded in creating an English Bible.  Their work allowed English speaking people to hear God speaking in their own language. That’s why the King James Version became "the Bible" for nearly four hundred years in most of the English-speaking world.

(Whether any translation has done this since is another subject!)

The recent shift in the church culture reminds me of our newer Bible translations. We have eliminated the old, mysterious mumbo jumbo of "propitiation," "forbearance" and “long-suffering" from our Bibles because the "language of Zion" had become a foreign language even to our children. In fact, many churches eliminated public Bible reading altogether once we discovered that post- moderns were "visual and nonlinear" learners. In doing so, we lost much of our ability to discuss theology with our parishioners.

But those issues are not the central focus of this reflection.  

What I want to know is how the shift of church culture has affected the role of the pastor.

Is it even worth asking: what is a pastor anyway?

The Biblical model for pastor is the shepherd. Indeed, in many languages, there is no separate word to distinguish the shepherd of a church from the shepherd of sheep.

 Along with the word “pastor” comes a biblical picture. “The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.  He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” And so forth. If the Lord is my shepherd, and the leader of my church is my shepherd, then I will naturally expect that the leader of my church will try to lead my church as he would care for a flock.

 This was the way churches viewed their leaders in times past. A pastor's central concern was the spiritual development of the people in his flock. A pastor was responsible for teaching, in word and by example, the structures of thought, the way of living, and the management of attitude that molded people into disciples.

 Sometime before the Reformation, the model for “pastor” shifted toward the professor.

 Well before the Reformation, spiritual leaders emerged (like Thomas Aquinas) who were first class philosophers. These gifted thinkers taught Christian doctrine in ways that stretched the intellect of their students and helped launch the artists, writers and even secular thinkers who created the modern Western world.

 Although the Reformers often challenged the ideas of these spiritual philosophers, they developed ministries along similar lines. The Protestant pastor thus became primarily a teacher whose teaching was focused on helping people interpret the Bible.

 Wesley and the early Methodists broadened the Protestant model for pastoring by including emotional formation as part of the process of becoming a disciple. So the early Methodist pastor focused on awakening the parishioner's soul rather than merely forming his intellect.

 Still, the focus of Protestant pastoral ministry remained primarily the exposition of scripture until the twentieth century.

 By the end of the nineteen sixties however, the model of pastor as shepherd or teacher had been overshadowed by pastor as marketer, businessman, or even entertainer. For the first time since the reformation, many believed that a theological background was at best superfluous and, at worse, detrimental for pastoring a dynamic church. Theology was now ridiculed as, “much ado about nothing.” Even a superficial knowledge of scripture could be tolerated if the pastor's presentation was clever enough to keep his people's attention. Spiritual formation dropped off the list of pastoral responsibilities altogether.

 Protestants had become pragmatists.

 The bottom line became a pastor's ability to attract nickels and noses.  

 In such an environment, it is little wonder that a pastor would soon become primarily either a CEO of a religious corporation or a great entertainer hired by a corporate board. Pastoral work had become about expanding the campus, securing the corporation and managing the capital of the enterprise. Preaching became inspirational entertainment. “Shepherding” became a churchy name for corporate leadership.

 To be fair, pastors in every age and in every culture have needed gifts and interests beyond that of Bible exposition and spiritual formation. Good pastors of great churches have always needed to know how to manage resources and people, or to at least know how to appoint those with such gifts to responsible positions within the church. And, many of the greatest pastors of history have been very entertaining. The sermons of John Chrysostum, third century bishop of Constantinople, are still entertaining; he wasn't called "golden mouth" for nothing! But management skills, or the ability to entertain, have not been considered the primary gifts of a pastor until recently. These “marketable skills” have been viewed as helpful means by which a pastor might achieve his primary end: shepherding his flock by growing the spiritual life of his people.

We are often told that gifted shepherds can be hired by "pastors" who are actually CEOs, and, that in fact, this is a superior arrangement. This corporate model supposedly allows the senior pastor of a great church to maintain his inspiring vision rather than get bogged down by the petty business of tending a flock.

I think otherwise.

 After a couple of generations, the corporate church model has been weighed in the balances and found wanting. If the pastor is primarily a CEO, then doctrine, prayer, worship (by which I mean much more than music or dramatic performance), and the spiritual formation of the people of God become products and programs. Spirituality becomes a secondary interest (if it survives as even that.) Church attendees replace converts.  Eternity disappears. The presence of God grows dim. When the felt, experienced sense of God’s presence disappears altogether, it is hardly missed.  A CEO is not judged by such things. He does not evaluate his work by such things. Therefore, if the pastor is primarily a CEO, spiritual life will, not may, diminish or even disappear.

 My point is not that the pastors of the past were all saints or that the pastors of today are not real pastors. What I am saying is that the role model for pastoral work has been changing pastors into something other than shepherds. I am also claiming that the result will be churches that are something other than spiritual families.

 In the end, I'm not really sure what the purpose for either pastor or church will be.

 There is now much confusion within our churches about what a pastor is supposed to do. As a result, many pastors are struggling with an identity crisis. They once felt called to do things they believed were important but discovered that the churches they served did not value those things. Since many pastors are not interested (nor trained) to do the things congregations now seem to expect, they either leave the ministry or try to play the role they are paid to play. However, they have lost their heart for the work and no longer respect themselves nor the office they hold.

 This is probably not the place to explore another model for “pastor,” suggested to me recently by evangelist Luis Palau.

 Over breakfast one morning, Palau said he believes many pastors now believe they are called to be social engineers. (We were in France at the time and wondered if either liberal or conservative churches could ever engineer a culture more impressive than France, which apparently feels no need for pastors at all!)

 The irony about this model of pastoring is that effective pastors have often changed cities and nations. However, the ability to transform individuals has always grown from a pastor’s spiritual influence and is a by-product of simply caring for a flock.

 In short: Church as business and pastor as CEO, are unproven means to advance the gospel of Christ. These models can “grow churches” but in many cases will leave one wondering how much of a “church” the resulting corporation really is.

 I for one have decided that the corporate model is an unproven oxcart.  Corporate life was not constructed to carry the altar of God. I think it cannot do it. In the end, the means molds both the message and messenger into things the saints would have found unrecognizable.

 The bottom line is that the world needs the church and its leaders to be "other than" rather than "same as."  

If they are not, both the world and the church may soon ask "what is the point of either?"