The Angry Teacher

Have you ever seen anger, like a bolt from the blue, explode in teachers known for their gentleness and patience? Perhaps not. Far more common is the slow burn that turns a faithful teacher into a sarcastic misanthrope. This anger erupts in both the church and the classroom. Some of the reasons will always be idiosyncratic and individualized, but the common ones are easy to identify.

First, those with a gift of teaching are often like the workman with only a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. I don’t know if I have gift of teaching—that is for others to say—but I know I have the habit. My conversations slide into numb-minding lectures without warning. I can feel it happening, but can’t stop myself. Because of this instinct to teach, every problem or situation appears to be a learning opportunity. Because of my misdiagnosis of the problem, I am frustrated that my instruction falls on deaf ears. How can my clear and logical explanations not solve everyone’s problems?

The answer is that we are made up of a mind, will, and emotion. More information, no matter how clearly presented, will not solve problems rooted in the will or emotion. Sometimes we simply need someone to go with us—not the directions explained one more time. Often more information outlined with logical precision only intensifies our self-loathing. Friendship sometimes does more than expertise.

Second, teachers often fail to distinguish what can be taught by precept and what must be taught by example. Congregations can be taught the seven keys to spiritual growth again and again without doing much of what they have heard. Teachers often have a “Listen up!” instead of a “Come and see” pedagogy. As has been said, “More is caught, than taught.” This is certainly the case with faith and revival. Long arguments about why we should trust our parachute are not as effective as teachers jumping out of the plane. Sermons on prayer are not as effective as pastors praying. Costly obedience is often a teacher’s best argument for what is true and important.

Third, teachers often fail to take sin and our fall seriously. We act as though people are inherently good and will do what is right once they know what is right. Wrong! Today people approach every social problem as though the problem is a lack of information. It was frustrating when a national study concluded that the D.A.R.E. program had been almost completely ineffective in keeping kids from using drugs. Our faith in education to solve problems has also created classes for anger management, drunk driving, and domestic violence—but no classes in humility and repentance.

It turns out that people often know what is right and wise but choose what is wrong and foolish. Short-term pleasure or convenience often vetoes what a person knows is right. To the surprise of no one—people sin! This makes the progress of students herky-jerky—two steps forward, one back. Or one step forward, faceplant. Teachers should not respond to this brokenness with anger and surprise—as if most of the Old Testament hasn’t warned us about people.

So what then should teachers do? We can begin by admitting that teaching is one of many tools needed to build up the body of Christ. We need exhortation and prophecy. We need those with gifts of mercy and kindness. Some teachers need to give up control and invite the whole body of Christ to minister truth to the hearts of the congregation.

Second, we should recognize that many of the most important truths must be taught by example—made flesh and lived out in the context of a community. Many are learned in the motions of a shared life and pilgrimage. Teachers must sometimes close their books and invite students to come and see.

Third, we must take seriously the parable of the sower whose seed lands on many kinds of soil. The job of the sower is make sure the seed is good and then sow freely. Obsessing about the germination and maturation rates will drive a teacher crazy.

Most important of all is to recognize that we are co-laboring with God. His Spirit is at work in our teaching and way beyond it. Sometimes teachers must simply stop talking and let God speak.

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Sympathy for the Idol

If you think about it, it is hard being an idol. It is a terrible burden, a crushing load of expectations. When we take a good thing and make it the most important thing, we begin expecting it to do for us what only God can do. Our idol is set up for the fall. It is unfair.

For instance, if we make our career an idol, we are demanding our career validate our worth and satisfy our God embedded hunger for significance. We are asking it to do something it can’t. The resulting emptiness often turns to bitterness and resentment—or apathetic detachment until retirement. It is why those most devoted to success are the least likely to enjoy it when it comes.

Sometimes people make an idol of their family or marriage. This is terrible. It is easy to get away with this kind of idolatry. After all, who is going to call you out for putting your family first? Nonetheless, it is cruel to expect from your spouse or family the purpose, joy, and unconditional love that only God can give. Our disappointments in our family can crush us if we have made it an idol—the source of all our worth. Spouses can drift or stumble spiritually—or much worse. Dreams for our kids can evaporate or turn to nightmares. Disappointment easily sours into anger and emotional desertion. We can end up destroying a good thing because it couldn’t be everything.

Even church can be an idol. Broken and insecure people come to church and discover, to their horror, it is full of other people who are broken and insecure. They may be progressing toward wholeness or stubbornly resisting; either way, they will fail to give us the perfect love only God gives. We will encounter some hypocrites, be criticized by some legalists, or tempted by some libertines. The loving Christian community we long for can easily become just one more dysfunctional family. Often when I encounter a bitter ex-Christian hurt by church, they will recite grievances against Christians and tell of their wounds. Almost none say, “Here is how God let me down and wounded me.” I often want to say, “You and God have a lot in common—you have both been wounded by his people.” If we refuse to make the church an idol, the wounds we receive there won’t destroy us, but instead become an invitation to the fellowship of his suffering.

My first title for this blog was a brief guide to enjoying life because when we refuse to make idols of the good things in our lives, we are set free to truly enjoy them. Sometimes I really enjoy teaching, about twice a month. If, however, I made my career my idol, I would begin to hate teaching. I walk away from the classroom feeling a failure too often for teaching to be my idol. Teaching can’t satisfy my desire to do something of lasting significance and value. Nothing lasts—it’s all dust in a Kansas wind. But I can delight in every “Aha!” moment a student has precisely because I have not unjustly expected teaching to give my life worth.

The same is true of money and possessions. A couple years ago Teckla and I saved up our money and bought a used Chevy Trailblazer with about 50,000 miles on it. I am 64 and still, haven’t, bought a new car. I had wanted a Toyota four-wheel drive, but they were about twice what we paid. If money and possessions were my idol, I would hate that I couldn’t afford a brand-new Toyota. I would hate my Trailblazer. But instead we love it. Yesterday we took it up some logging roads to cut our own Christmas tree. When we shift into four-wheel drive and head up rutted logging roads, Teckla and I look at each other saying triumphantly, “We have a Trailblazer because we are trailblazers.” Stupid? Of course, but it is an example of how not making things an idol frees us to enjoy their goodness.

Idolatry stops us from enjoying the good things of life. When we demand that good things do what only God can do, we fail to respond to their goodness with thanksgiving. Instead of celebrating what things are, we resent what they aren’t. We become blind to their goodness and see only the ways they disappointment us. When we worship only God, the good things in our lives become rightly ordered and thus thoroughly enjoyed. This ordering is especially important for relationships.

Because I don’t expect Teckla to be my source of purpose, worth, or joy, she is free to be who God has made her. She doesn’t have to be who I “need her” to be. And because I know Teckla has not made me an idol, I am free to be myself. I know her faith is anchored in a God who never fails and never forgets. Not having to be god frees me to grow in godliness.

I have not always recognized the first of the ten commandments as the door to enjoying life.  Unconsciously, I have probably absorbed that distorted view that God is a killjoy and the commandments are given to keep us from enjoying life too much. But when we walk upstream to our source of unhappiness, we will almost always discover we have made some good thing the ultimate thing. When God is our one thing, all other things are fully enjoyed as expressions of His goodness.

Isaiah (46:7) points out that those who make idols have to carry their idols around. Idols become a “burden for the weary.” So not only does idolatry burden good things with unfair expectations, we burden ourselves with idolatry. A few verses later in Isaiah, God says to Israel, “I have made you and I will carry you.” It is not just the burden of sin that we are invited to lay down. When we lay down our idolatry of good things, we and the good things in our lives are set free. We can let God carry us.

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Toxic Authenticity

Some people should never be told, “Just be yourself.” I have grown up in the church and have a nose for hypocrisy. Much of my life has been a search for authentic Christianity: people who are the real deal, who walk the talk, who are doers of God’s Word and not just hearers. I detest all religious priggishness and pretense, but there is a kind of authenticity that is toxic.

If someone told me to just be myself, I would have to ask, “Which self?” I am full of potential—not all of it good. I can discover, especially when tired, selfish impulses within me. When discouraged or depressed, I can speak faith-destroying words of bitterness—a wintry blast of despair. With withering wit, I can destroy every trace of hope in a young Christian.

Or I could get real and tell my brothers and sisters in Christ about their own shortcomings and immaturity. I could loose shot-gun blasts of authenticity and wound everyone around me. A part of me (one of my “selfs”) would relish crushing the naivete of young social justice warriors who think they alone understand racism and sexism. No one could accuse me of being a hypocrite or phony because my critique of myself would be even more merciless.

There is, however, this other self: one that rings true. As I pursue Christ, I am becoming the person God created me to be. I am a work in progress, so there is evil stuff around that claims to be me. What God says about who I am and what Satan says are at war in my heart and mind. When I say yes to what God says about me, I choose to do what is kind and speak what I know is true—no matter how depressed and discouraged.

It is here where Camus and Sartre get something right, our choices when fully owned create our authentic self. I have chosen to place my faith in Christ and God’s Word. I am existentially choosing this every day. Some might say that I am inauthentic because my choice doesn’t express every selfish or depressed impulse I have. But in Christ those impulses aren’t me anymore. I can be honest about them without serving them.

On a more down-to-earth level, I have learned from my wife and from Teresa, Peter’s fiancée, that being gracious to others is not being phony. Teresa has worked in customer service in many capacities and has a great ability to be charming and polite to even the rudest person—even me. It is simply putting others first. It is love.

It is too easy to excuse rudeness and meanness as simply being authentic or honest. We can easily let cruel and destructive words roll off our tongues under the guise of being genuine. We often justify this toxic authenticity as edginess, being a straight-shooter, telling it like it is, or having some prophetic license to wound.

When I stifle the reflexive motions of pride and vengeance by blessing those who curse me and praying for those who hurt me, I am truly myself—the self God created me to be. Choosing to be this new creature in Christ is the most authentic thing I can do.

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Kansas City Blues

This morning I awoke from a dream that was simply a conversation with an old friend from my days in Kansas City. We were sat at a table in an outdoor café and talked about how life had gone since the eighties when Teckla and I were in Kansas City. My friend explained how the church had wounded her, how life had disappointed her, and how her faith had been battered. In the dream, I asked, “What about God?” I then woke up.

I asked about God because I too have been wounded by those in the church. I have seen hopes and dreams die. I have disappointed myself and been disappointed by others. All this has required the hard work of forgiving people and surrendering my dreams and disappointments to God. In the end, I too have had to answer the question, “What about God?”

The answer that raises my heart from the dead is this: “God, you are perfect in all your ways!” When said with full conviction and passion, these words sweep away every grudge against God, every unconscious accusation against his goodness. It revives my soul.

I declare this without having an answer to every question about those times when obeying God did not have the cool result I thought it should. Often God has not followed my script. And unlike some, I can not look back on my life and discern how God was secretly working everything out in some wonderful way.

I still have questions. Some things in my past still seem simply wrong—without any redemptive purpose or design. Some things may have just been the work of the enemy, or expressions of the evil in people’s hearts. I can’t explain away everything that grieves my heart as an unseen blessing. I do know it is important to give all my grievances to God.

Often, we don’t recognize that our grievances against life have mutated into grievances against God. A sign that this has happened is when our disappointments move us further from God instead of closer. When we withdraw from God and God’s people to nurse our wounds and nurture our disappointments, we are blaming God. That blame shrinks our love for God and kills our communication with him.

I have beloved brothers and sisters who have been hurt by churches, wounded in their marriages, and seen dreams for their children dashed. Some have gone through divorce, even the death of a spouse or child. We live in a world full of thorns, thistles, and unanswered questions. We have a real enemy who lies, steals, and destroys. Yet, through our tears, it is our privilege to declare to God, “You are perfect in all your ways.”

The more I come face to face with my weakness and the brokenness of the world, the more I love lifting my eyes to a God who has loved me perfectly and saved me fully. I am His. And He is mine. When I see all that is mine in God, the riches of grace found in Christ, and the glorious hope of an eternity with Him, my grief is swallowed up by joy. My Kansas City blues become jazzy hymns of praise.

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The Resurrection and Marriage

Having Teckla as my worship leader is, and has been, one of my greatest joys. It has also given me a glimpse of something difficult to grasp: the relationship of a husband and wife after the resurrection.

It has always bothered me that Jesus said that “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” The longer I am married, the more this bothers me—the less I want to be like an angel.

Every sappy and cloying thing a couple could say about their love, we say with all sincerity. It feels like we have an eternal love. We have been married almost 40 years and would still rather be with each other than anyone else. Start the syrupy Hallmark movie music; we have undying, everlasting love for each other. Not being married seems terrible and unimaginable—nothing heavenly.

I blame this on my parents who were crazy in love for over fifty years. Last year when my mother was bedridden and dying, I mentioned something Dad used to do. Because of her stroke, she couldn’t talk, but I saw a tear slide down her cheek. I asked, “Why are you crying? Are you hurting?” She nodded no. When I asked if she was missing Dad, she nodded yes and shed a few more tears. It had been twenty years since Dad died. I know she looked forward to being reunited with Dad, but what does that look like if there is no marriage in the resurrection?

Several times I have gotten a glimpse of this while Teckla leads worship. When I see her face alive with joy and love for God and watch her pour out her heart to God in love and celebration, I fall more in love with her. I also rejoice that God has blessed me with a wife that loves Jesus with wild abandon.

But quickly there is a shift in my thoughts and spirit as I follow her example and give all my attention to God. As I fling all my adoration Godward and sense God’s presence in our midst, I realize that Teckla and I are brother and sister in Christ. Our love for each other is flooded with God’s love for us and our love for Him. Just as the rising of the sun makes stars grow dim, our love is submerged in a greater love. In that moment, it feels like nothing is lost—every good thing is found. It feels like eternity—all joy. Teckla and I are the Bride rejoicing in Jesus, the Bridegroom.

It is biblical, of course, that being married gives us glimpses of eternity. I will be okay not being married in the resurrection; Teckla and I have an invitation to the wedding that matters most.

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How Individualism Destroys the Pursuit of Wisdom and Ruins Everything

Recently our pastor preached an excellent sermon from Proverbs 4 entitled “Get Wisdom.” Together we looked at some of the ways we get wisdom: praying, reading the Bible, listening carefully to the Holy Spirit—that Inner Voice and Light that leads us. I was okay with all those, but the next two I was not enthusiastic about: tradition and wise counsel.

Emotionally I share my culture’s assumption that what is old is wrong and what is new, good. On cue I can trot out examples of church traditions that have been wrong, even unbiblical. Also, I am of that generation that declared we shouldn’t trust anyone over thirty. My graying generation still worships the youth culture no matter how silly or profane it becomes, and regrets we don’t have the energy to stay hip. We break with tradition; we don’t look to it for wisdom.

Here in Myrtle Point we also have a lot of good-ol’-boy individualism—western rugged individualism. We are quick to help, but often too proud and independent to ask for help. We make our own decisions and take responsibility for them no matter how stupid. We stubbornly insist on going it alone—without considering what wisdom, tradition, or others can offer. It is rebellion rooted in pride.

Cowboy individualism and Sixties rebellion are now a permanent part of our culture—even church culture. It may be most virulent in congregations that seek to engage our culture by making Jesus relevant. To a postmodern hipster generation, we preach Jesus as rebel—one who justifies our individualism and rejection of authority. We spiritualize this individualism as a refusal to conform to the world.  One of the great ironies of American culture is that non-conformity is now a mainstream value. The posture of the religious rebel and nonconformist is just another way we seek the world’s approval.

To the redneck or cowboy, we may preach a salvation that is just about them and God—and fail to mention that they were baptized into the church and are now part of the Body of Christ. The call to be dependent on other believers and receive from others is not a message we westerners want to hear. We rebel.

True rebellion against the world means valuing tradition and forsaking the tyranny of the temporary. Looking to tradition for wisdom runs counter to both the practice and spirit of our culture. We are a people who color outside the lines, march to our own drummer, and believe rules are made to be broken. Worldly individualism and rebellion blind us to the corporate character of biblical Christianity.  Many Christians can’t imagine submission and obedience as spiritual virtues.

Regarding tradition (the wisdom of the past), many of us are spiritually illiterate. We approach every problem or spiritual issue as though we are the first believers to ever be in this situation. We ignore the truths thousands of believers from the past have discovered. Attention to tradition gives the past a vote regarding what is wise and good, but too often this is one group whose voting rights we don’t defened.

Obviously, we can’t truly be Christians and completely avoid the disciplines of obedience, but we often stipulate that it is only Jesus or God’s Word that we will obey. We are each our own denomination. We can even elevate this into something spiritual: “I only listen to Jesus” or “I just read my Bible and do what God says to do.” We baptize our individualism and pass it off as single-minded devotion to God. Too often, however, the spirit behind this is simple rebellion and willfulness.

Again and again, I have seen people withdraw from church when they are about to make an unwise life decision. Or if they keep coming, they do not bring up or ask anyone in the church about the decision they face: getting married, taking a job, moving, etc. Others are told about the decision only after it is irreversible. Foolish decisions can devastate the lives of believers and thereby cripple our outreach to the community.

People sometimes withdraw from the church and avoid wise counsel because they already know what they want to do is foolish or even sinful. It is also possible that they have had negative experiences with meddling and controlling believers. Pastors and elders have sometimes sought to go beyond wise counsel into outright control and manipulation. So let me be clear, I am not advocating any type of control by the elders of the church, but simple take-or-leave-it advice that skillfully applies God’s Word to specific situations and decisions.

We shoiuld seek wise counsel because we can all have blind spots. Our own desires or the voices of our culture can blind us to what God’s Word says is right and good. When I strongly desire something, I can easily mistake my desire for God’s leading. I can’t always trust my heart. My emotions are a tangle of dreams of the future and nightmares of the past. In this clamor, I often need that victory that comes from many counselors (Proverbs 11:14).

But it is hard to admit I don’t have all the answers and all the wisdom. Actively seeking the wisdom of others not only requires that we forsake the idol of self-sufficiency and individualism, it means we must embrace something rare in our culture: humility.

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God is About To . . .

Thus begins the spiritual meth, the prophetic word, that hooks us on hope, but then brings us crashing down into spiritual depression and disillusionment. The scope of the prophecy can range from personal to global. God is about to pour out his Holy Spirit upon the church, city, nation, or world. God is about to restore, reform, refresh, renew, or revive.

These words may not even come from people with prophetic gifts or offices. It may be what we speak to ourselves as we meditate on God’s Word, petition God, and intercede for others. We may feel the warm presence of God and the clean wind of the Spirit whispering that we are on the edge of a break through, a visitation of God.

But then we wait. And pray. Hammer away day after day in intercession. And nothing happens. Or things get worse.

I have been in congregations where we flew high on prophetic visions of a move of God that was about to happen: first in the 80’s, then the 90’s. I think after the 90’s came and went prophets may have quit announcing times. These words drew people to the church, but after a while a few fell away, but more drifted away and settled for a more present tense approach to serving God.

I first prayed for a move of God here in Myrtle Point when I was seventeen. I was leading Bible studies at the high school and at a coffee house on Highway 42. I am almost 64. Since moving back here from Kansas City, Teckla and I have been praying for city-wide revival for the last 23 years. A year ago, Teckla and I and few others in our church felt we were on the edge of a breakthrough in our congregation, but it now seems like the church has shifted into park—or even reverse.

This is discouraging. It is tempting to drag my disappointed soul into a 12-step program, find a Calvinist sponsor, and abstain from prophecies (especially my own). Why focus on what God is about to do? Let’s just sing about the wonderful things Jesus has already done for us on the cross. Isn’t this enough? Should we really expect God to be doing stuff now and in the future? He has done enough. Be grateful.

Or perhaps we can allow God the freedom to do stuff, but not expect answers to specific prayers for revival and restoration. God is sovereign and omnipotent. He will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. Prayer changes us, not God or his sovereign will or timing. (Doesn’t this sound spiritual?)

Sorry, I can’t stop. I can only say, “Hi, I’m Mark and I am addicted to hope.” I refuse recovery and the only meeting I am going to is a prayer meeting. I simply can’t pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” and not expect his kingdom to come—come here on earth as it is heaven. James declared that faith without works is dead. I think faith without hope isn’t faith at all. And without faith, at least a mustard seed of faith, no mountains move.

Reading God’s Word only enables my addiction. There are too many stories about those like Joseph who were faithful to God when everything seemed to be going the absolute other direction. Or like Joshua and Caleb who entered the promised land even after a whole generation of Israelites perished in the wilderness of unbelief and despair. Or even prophets who died before they got to see the promises of God they had declared to Israel.

In his parables Jesus taught that we should live as servants who expect the master to return at any moment. We are told to live a life alert to what God is getting ready to do. He tells us to be aware of the times and seasons. I want to have the hope and faithfulness of Anna and Simeon who in their last years prayed, fasted, and kept believing in the prophetic promise that they would see Jesus, the consolation of Israel, before they died (Luke 2:25—38).

I am haunted by the 400 some years between Malachi and Matthew. How many Annas and Simeons prayed and looked for the Messiah in these years? Sometimes we kneel in the darkness and fling our prayers into the night—trusting in God’s goodness, not our wisdom or revelation. I fully understand that God’s people have often been wrong about when and how God will move. But I also know that many of God’s prophetic promises are invitations, not proclamations. That first generation out of Egypt refused God’s invitation into the promised land, but God did not lie.

Thankfully, I have also learned not to crash amid disappointment and perplexity, but instead lean into God’s Word and the Holy Spirit for renewed hope. However, I will also be utterly transparent and honest about mistakes I make about what I think God is about to do. Because of perfect confidence in God’s love for me, I can bring my questions and confusion to Him. I can say without too much whine, “But God, I thought you said . . . What’s up?” We can talk.

And yes, God is sovereign. He will move when and where he chooses. The Holy Spirit is like a mighty wind. However, on this hill in Myrtle Point, I can stand in the storm, lift my hands to God, and pray revival strikes here.

 

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F-Bombs, Harvey Weinstein, and Jesus

If we are serious about the brick-by-brick dismantling of the rape culture, we need to get rid of the f-bomb. I am no delicate-eared prude shrinking in horror at a naughty word. I have worked happily in mills, fields, and onion warehouses where f-words flowed freely. Nor am I a bigot wanting censorship. I am an English teacher. However, it seems clear to me, startlingly obvious, that the f-bomb joins violence and sex, violation and sexual intercourse.

I know that we now use the word in many non-sexual ways, but there is no denying that saying f-you is a way of joining sex with power and humiliation. We can add many variations of this: f-off, over, and up. Our culture uses this word for actual sex when we want to emphasize the purely animal or physical act of intercourse.  It is sex done to someone, not with someone. It avoids the connotations of the phrase “making love” and linguistically avoids the entangling associations of commitment, covenant, and consent.

My argument isn’t that the word magically creates a rape culture, but that it normalizes a view of sex robbed of respect and relationship. It is by no means the biggest brick in the rape culture. It is, however, a blind spot in many who are vocal against sexual harassment. All the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the many others accused of harassment make clear we need a change in our whole culture. But cultures are made of the words we use and the meaning they carry.

We have all become aware that battling racism means ridding our language of ethnic slurs. We do not say of the n-word, “It is just a word. Get over it!” The f-bomb is a slur against what should always be regarded as something sacred: the union of a man and a woman. In the Christian narrative all of history ends with the Church-–the Bride of Christ being united with Jesus—the Bridegroom. It is called the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.  Paul says that the relationship between a husband and wife is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the Church. It makes sense that the filthiest word we have is a defilement of one the holiest things God offers.

Christians, therefore, should not use the f-bomb to prove they are edgy, relevant, or liberated from legalism. We certainly don’t want to be caught quibbling over words while ignoring real acts of sexual assault and violence. Nor do we want to whine about someone using the n-word and ignore a young black man being shot in the street. We can and should do both: reject the language of violence and the acts of violence.

Destroying a rape-culture involves much more than banning the F-bomb. It means ridding ourselves of double-standards of conduct for men and women. It means never blaming the victim, enabling a bully, or turning a blind eye to harassment. But to change a culture, we need to change the language—we need to make our language about sex sacred. Or at the very least we need language that places sex in the context of love, consent, and respect. We need to ban the bomb.

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Moths and a Curious Gift

A full bladder when one is camping in a tent a long walk from the bathroom is never welcome. It meant a roll and wallow to get out of the sleeping bag and slip on sandals and then a hunt in the dark for the tent’s zipper. Maybe that is why most people my age camp in RVs. Or maybe they didn’t choose teaching as a career. I, however, did not curse my weak bladder as I traipsed up the trail to the bathroom last month. I shot the flashlight into the trees to catch eyes of the owl I had been hearing while in my sleeping bag. I also wondered how many species of moth I would find pasted to the wall of the bathroom. And I gave thanks for one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me—insatiable curiosity about the world.

No matter how big the bug or creepy the spider, my parents’ response was never “eek” or “yuck”, but “What species is it?” Mom let her boys bring home snakes, lizards, and spiders and keep them in our rooms. But it was not just about the natural world we were curious. Mom and Dad always had their noses in a book, so we grew up bookish and curious about history and literature. At the table, Dad eagerly entertained questions about metaphysics, epistemology, and theology.

I have found something healing and redemptive about all this knowledge for its own sake. Curiosity takes us outside ourselves and frees us from incessant self-concern. It carries us into a quiet world that exists apart from us and with no interest in us. When our questions lift us into the vast universe of what we don’t know, we see our smallness, the boundaries of self. Once small, we are often free from the afflictions of our pride and ambition.

Even as a boy camping at Cape Perpetua and trekking across the bridge and up the road to the bathroom, I was often too curious to be afraid of night’s sounds and shadows. I thought I might see the raccoons, skunks, or pack rats that raided camps. Delight in discovering and knowing made my fears an after-thought instead of my first thought. Curiosity and courage strengthen us to face the new and the unknown.

I am also grateful for curiosity because it has made knowing more important than having. It has saved me from the wild American scramble after more and more stuff. The trails I haven’t hiked and books I haven’t read are the best retirement package I can imagine. And perhaps the next time Teckla and I camp in our duct tape and nylon tent, I will discover several new species of moths spread like a constellation against the dark brown of the bathroom wall. I may also discover the effects of uric acid on the growth of salmonberry, alder, and spruce.

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Let the Circle Remain Unbroken

My church sat us in rows staring at a platform with a pulpit, but in 1970 I found myself in a circle in the back room of a Jesus freak coffeehouse on Sherman Avenue in North Bend, Oregon. We tore pieces from a loaf of bread passed hand to hand and drank grape juice from a big cup.

I looked around the room and saw tears in some eyes, but joy in every eye. After communion, we stood, joined hands, and sang “We are one in the Spirit . . . They will know we are Christians by our love.” They were a ragged bunch; several had long hair and scraggly beards. Jim had spent most of high school skipping class and drinking Annie Green Springs cherry wine in Mingus Park. John had been a heroin addict.  Jesus had saved bpth and genuine love radiated from their faces.

I was 17 and had been in church all my life, but I had never seen the joy of salvation dancing in the eyes and smiles of believers until that day. Of course, I had heard old-timers give teary-eyed testimonies about God’s goodness. However, turning around in the pew to actually see their faces would have been odd or rude. We weren’t, after all, in a circle.

Probably 95% of my time with believers has been spent staring at the platform and the backs of those in front of me. The other day during worship I worked my way to the side of all the chairs so I could look back across the congregation and see the faces of those worshiping. I know worship is all about God—not those around us, but I was surprised at how much I was encouraged and blessed by seeing the love for Jesus on all those faces. I wished we could be in a circle.

I know there are many practical reasons for meeting in rows facing the front. There are also theological reasons. For Catholics it expresses the centrality of the Eucharist; for the Protestants the centrality of the Word of God being proclaimed from the pulpit. It does, however, work against the idea of the priesthood of all believers. It most certainly undermines the idea that the Holy Spirit has distributed gifts to all the believers to be used to build each other up when we come together. Our arrangement says loudly, “The gifts are on the platform.”

Paul describes the result of the gathering of believers in I Corinthians 14:26:

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (NASB)

Despite the clarity and directness of Paul’s description, this is seldom the outcome at most of our assemblies. Most of the body of Christ doesn’t participate in any kind of ministry to others in our gatherings.

Many large churches have recognized this problem and addressed it through small groups, but years in pews have given low expectations for our small groups. We are tempted to passively let the group leader take charge and do all the ministry. It is easy to show up for a small group with no expectation that God will use us to encourage, heal, exhort, or us instruct others. Most the data on large churches with many small groups shows that only 30—40 per cent of the congregation gets hooked into a small group no matter how energetically the pastor proclaims their importance.

Many have researched and written eloquently about the many benefits of small groups. I think early Quakers tried to arrange their meeting houses with more of the believers seeing and facing each other, but I think even Quakers now have rows of pews facing the front.

I do not have a solution to this for large meetings. Some have gone almost entirely to house churches and have a large corporate meeting monthly, quarterly, or annually. I don’t know what out there may be working well.

I do know that seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those with whom I worship is life-giving. I need a circle. I should add that I love hearing my pastor preach, and I am always delighted and spiritually nourished by the love for God I see in the face of our worship leader. I just need the rest of the folks in my circle.

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