Thursday, June 28, 2012

All God's Creatures

Of all the things I've blogged about over the last few years, the only one that resulted in a mass of unsubscription notices was when I talked about my love for whales. So I never blogged about it again. Parenting is a good topic. So is singleness. Loving my spouse. Enduring in crisis. These topics seem to resonate with the broad readership of this blog. But a profound interest in marine mammals – not so much.

Nevertheless, I'm very interested in marine mammals, though mostly just those in the dolphin family. And I don't see that interest as a secular interest. I'm not a fan of distinctions between the sacred and secular, and while I'm not always successful, I do try to make sure things that occupy my mind fit within my belief system. I briefly entertained the idea of studying marine biology at the College of Charleston many moons ago when I was thinking through colleges and courses of study. I eventually chose a Christian college where I studied math education, and I don't regret that decision. I had previously swum with dolphins at a research facility in Key Largo, Florida during a summer camp with my youth group at church. The dolphins came on either side of me and pulled me through the water as I held on to their fins. I wasn't a strong swimmer and slipped off, and they graciously came back around to get me again. I was hooked.

Fast forward a couple of decades. Life and responsibility and ministry led me away from the east coast. But I eventually landed on the west coast. There, I met the biggest dolphins of all, the Orca whale, and I fell in love again. My husband has made it possible for me to go to what he jokingly calls whale school this summer, a week of training to become a naturalist who can lead whale watching tours in the Pacific Northwest. I could wax eloquent for a bit on the incredible intelligence and awe inspiring relational nature of the local pods of killer whales here, but I'll just link to this documentary if you want an idea yourself.

I spent last week back on the east coast, watching pods of dolphins swim up and down the channel near our beach house on Edisto Island, South Carolina. I snickered to think of all the money I had been willing to spend on dolphin and whale tours, and here, for free, 20 of them were swimming up and down the coastline as we played in the water 30 feet away from them.

Creation is broken, but it was not utterly destroyed. And there are still many glimpses to be had of the awe of what God created in perfection for us to enjoy with Him. For me, dolphins are a little hint of that. Behind the chimpanzee, they are the smartest animal on earth. They communicate better than my dogs do, and my dogs are pretty good communicators. I note that when a serpent walked up to Eve in the Garden of Eden and started talking to her, she just talked back. No one seemed surprised by the conversation, and I suspect that in perfection animal communication was the norm, not the exception. When I study dolphins and observe their behavior, I don't attribute the image of God to them—no, only man was made to reflect God in such a way. Yet I recognize that they too were created by our God, and I'm amazed by what remains after the fall that continues to reflect the awesomeness of our Creator.

You likely have something else that resonates deep within your heart and makes you long for perfection. Maybe it's a mountain vista that reflects the grandeur of God to you. Maybe it's the beauty of the birth of a new life. I think different pieces of creation resonate to us individually. For me, it's the warm ocean breeze washing over me as I watch a family of dolphins rolling in and out of the water with the sound of gentle waves in the background. One day, I'll enjoy that in perfection where God Himself is the Sun that shines down on us. That thought ministers deeply to my soul in troubled times.
Psalm 148 
4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! 
5  Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created. 
6 And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away. 
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, 
8  fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! 
9  Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 
10  Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! 
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth. 
12 Young men and maidens together,  old men and children! 
13  Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. 
14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. 
Praise the Lord!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Christian Performance Evaluations and the Gospel

I posted on this topic last year and decided to rerun the topic during the doldrums of summer break. Last year, the topic of performance evaluations in Christian ministries came up after an Acts 29 leadership podcast suggested a fairly strict rubric for identifying and promoting ministry leaders. A robust discussion ensued, and I've been thinking about the topic ever since. Occasionally, I feel the need to give some disclaimers about myself, and this post is one of those occasions. First, I am nobody and have no authority. I am literally writing this in my pajamas. Second, I call this blog a lecture to myself. Others are welcome to read and interact, but I don't write this to lecture you. Just me. If something is helpful to you or makes you think, that's awesome. With all those disclaimers said, I'm going to give my thoughts on the topic. I think the principles apply well beyond the topic of performance evaluations, so maybe the discussion here will be more relevant to readers than the topic at first seems.

The discussion on performance evaluations in Christian ministry reminded me how easy it is for our theology and our practice to diverge from one another. That was the point of my first book, Practical Theology for Women. What we believe about God and the gospel has to mean something in our daily practices. And I submit that it has to mean something on the topic of rating the effectiveness of staff and leaders in Christian ministries.

The second thing that came to mind in the discussion on performance evaluations is how important it is that we never assume the gospel. I did that some in my first book – assumed that the readers knew the gospel. Life experience between my first book and my second book taught me otherwise, and the Ephesians Bible study, though every bit as practical as my first book, is saturated with the gospel from beginning to end (as Paul himself does in the book of Ephesians). As we take communion each Sunday, my pastor reminds the congregation of the necessity of this review of the gospel. We are by nature suspicious of grace. We don't really believe that gospel grace changes people. We will default to law and performance every time apart from regular meditation on the truth of the gospel, and Scripture is full of examples of this very thing.

The third thing that came to mind when thinking about performance evaluations is that Christ didn't seem to use them with His disciples. At least He didn't use them to decide who He'd disciple or who He'd promote. Of all the disciples who actively hurt Jesus' ministry, Peter had to be at the top. Yet, after Peter cuts off a soldier's ear and then DENIES Jesus three times, Jesus' next interaction with Peter is to reaffirm that God will build His church on Peter. Peter would have failed his performance evaluation in every way, yet God gives him the greatest task of all – “feed my sheep.” Jesus deliberately set up discipleship methods that were the exact opposite of the world. His discipleship tactics do not fit secular business models.

I think the important theological issue at hand is sanctification and how it applies to rating the effectiveness of someone and then what to do without them after assessing them. Theological positions on sanctification seem to fall into 3 categories. Sanctification by works, sanctification by a mix of works and grace, and sanctification by grace. I grew up in a Christian environment that didn't use those terms but practically believed in sanctification by works. We were saved by grace and no works of our own. But then, because God had done so much for us on the cross, it was our job to obey and be righteous. There was great guilt heaped on those who fell or made mistakes, and they were easily discarded, deemed unworthy of further discipleship. Why waste time on someone just sucking up resources?

In my 20's, I started attending a reformed church that taught sanctification by grace, where the only work on my part was cooperation with the Spirit and even that was empowered by God. That was transforming for me. I can't put into words how beautiful it was to understand that God took the responsibility for my daily transformation as much as He did my first moment of regeneration.
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. —2 Corinthians 3:18
I don't lay back passively as God makes me righteous. Yet, I'm not the first cause of my righteousness or obedience either. God moves in and for me, equipping me to be and do something I could never muster up on my own. Consider how the Scripture speaks of this concept:
Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy. (Lev. 20) 
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2)

In Leviticus 20, we’re commanded to be holy (sanctified or set apart for God’s purposes) because God is making us holy. In Philippians 2, we’re told to work out what God is working in. And in Ephesians, Paul instructs us to put off and put on, as we are being renewed (passive voice) by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working in and with me, so that I show outwardly what He is changing in me. Any righteousness we exhibit outwardly is a result of our inner relationship with the Spirit. You can’t separate the two, and God is the first cause.

Now apply this all to the idea of performance evaluations.

Obviously, there is no value in self-delusion over our faults. I've been evaluated at times, and it can be helpful. The evaluations that were helpful, by the way, were OBJECTIVE, not subjective opinions by my employer or boss. If we've evaluated someone using objective, quantifiable measurements, what do we do if we find them lacking? We need to distinguish between moral failings and weakness in giftings or talent. And if Christ is our model, we don't write them off for either. If we are discipling them, we must offer them the HOPE of the gospel for their daily transformation. Your moral failings are real, but they don't define you! Christ has paid for this on the cross. Put off the old, lean into Him for the renewing of your mind, and put on new ways that reflect His image in your life. And if you aren't particularly talented, that's OK too. God is clear that He uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. It's His modus operandi.

The gospel changes EVERYTHING. It's not a footnote or addendum to Christian ministry. We can't let the world's business models dictate how we evaluate and promote or demote staff in Christian ministries. However we respond to poor performers, the gospel calls us to something other than writing them off for their past performance.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thinking too hard on the meaning of marriage

I'm confused by the pushback around Ian and Larissa's video about their sacrificial, unconventional marriage. If you're unfamiliar with the story, Ian and Larissa were young Christians in love in college.  Ian received a brain injury while they were planning their wedding.  After 4 years, they decided to get married despite his condition.  Desiring God shared it first, and others shared it as well. At some points, someone voiced a negative opinion which gained traction.

I've watched the video and read their story. I've heard the praise, and I've read the criticism. I'm still dumbfounded that, somehow, this has become controversial.  Some people in the comments of articles sharing their story debate the meaning of marriage and politely allude to the issue of sex. Is it a real marriage if they can't have sex? Does highlighting their story of sacrifice set them up as an uber-example of Christ-like love? Does applauding their sacrifice mean all couples facing similar circumstances should choose the same level of sacrifice? Some go as far to ask should Larissa really have married Ian at all.

Frankly, I'm disturbed by the level of debate. Why have some taken the simple sharing of Ian and Larissa's story so PERSONALLY? If I may say a bold word—it's not about YOU (or ME for that matter). It's about Ian and Larissa. It's purely THEIR story. The rest of us can just rest, praise God. This isn't our story, it's theirs. It's not our circumstances, it's theirs. The fact that many people are moved deeply by their story (I sobbed as I watched it) doesn't mean that you or I have to feel constrained by their example. The fact that Desiring God shared Ian and Larissa's story along with information on This Momentary Marriage means very little. It's an example. That's all.
Example--one of a number of things, or a part of something, taken to show the character of the whole: an instance serving for illustration;
They are an example. There is something about their story that moves us as an illustration. They are one of a number of things, all vastly different yet with some common thread of sacrificial love, that could be used to show the character of the whole of Christian marriage. Hopefully, your marriage too is an example of self-sacrificial love, though most likely from a very different angle. 

Why do we overanalyze their story? Why are people threatened by it? It's OK for Ian and Larissa to be convicted to do something that you or I are not required to do in similar circumstances. And it's also OK for us to be convicted by their example as well. I was moved as I thought about their depth of love. I love my husband the same way, as he does me. Watching their video reminded me of moments my husband has served me when I had nothing to offer him, and vice versa. They are an example, an illustration that reminded me of beautiful characteristics of Biblical love.

All of that is good. What's not OK is speculating whether they made the right choice. For them, it was the right choice. How do I know it? Because it's the choice they made, and from all accounts, they made it through prayer, Bible study, and the movement of the Holy Spirit in their heart. It's the choice they made, and once that commitment was made, none of us has the authority to question it. There is no Scripture against it for sure. It's clear that they loved each other deeply before the accident and that their love has continued through these circumstances.

If you have struggled with their story, I encourage you to respect that it is THEIR story, not yours. In sharing their story, they serve as an illustration of a reality that is far broader and deeper than any one single couple can fully flesh out. Christian leaders should be able to hold up examples without us feeling immediately constrained by their example (it never occurred to me to project onto other NFL players any negative emotions because they too did not join the armed forces as Pat Tillman did after 9/11). Yet I do admire Ian and Larissa's example, as I do that of Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband, Ken. I admire it, but I'm not constrained by it. The gospel, closely examined and thoroughly applied, equips each of us to understand that very important difference.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Spiritual Formation and Celebrity Pastors

I don't believe in Christian hero worship, but if I did, Tim Keller would be the pastor on which I'd focus. I love John Piper and D. A. Carson too. I've learned a LOT from those guys. But I've been particularly affected by Tim Keller's books (Generous Justice in particular) and ministry (my pastor interned under Keller, and I have grown tons through his gospel-centered preaching). I respect Keller's ability to speak truth to a culture that conservatives tend to offend often not by our truth, but by our ignorant way of presenting that truth. Keller has modeled for me a way to engage an educated, agnostic culture so that if they take offense, they take it over THE stumbling block of Christ Himself and not lesser issues that were never meant to be stumbling blocks.

All that to say, it is noteworthy to me that Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City where Tim Keller preaches is moving to a decentralized preaching model. From their blog last week--
“In North America, we have an unhealthy fascination with celebrity preachers. Building a church (or a movement) around a celebrity pastor/preacher has inherent dangers and gives rise to certain problems.”
Al Barth goes on to note several problems in congregations centered around celebrity preachers. It all goes to spiritual formation – that nebulous but real idea of how our discipleship practices affect the whole person. My pastor noted that by deliberately engaging in the practice of not demanding a celebrity preacher in order for worship to be valid, Redeemer Presbyterian will be spiritually forming the people there in a much stronger way. Allowing celebrity preachers to become the focus of worship is a practice that actively shapes people in the wrong way. 

I've watched this phenomenon personally. A congregation has multiple teaching pastors, but one seems a more gifted speaker. Gradually, the congregation of a multi venue church starts to overwhelm the services featuring the gifted speaker. Then expediency takes over. If the congregants are flocking to hear the gifted speaker, then it makes sense to have the gifted speaker speak more often and/or in the largest venue. At some point, spiritual formation suffers. People are formed, but they are in many ways spiritually DEformed, equating external performance for internal character in a preacher.

I'm not saying that gifted speakers are not used to accomplish good things spiritually in the lives of the listeners. And I am not saying that the average church with a single teaching pastor is doing it wrong. Not at all. But I am noting the problem in spiritual formation when a church changes its core values or makes major adjustments to accommodate a congregation's unusual affinity for a certain speaking style to the detriment of other teachers or ministries. Paul's warning in 2 Timothy 4:3 about itching ears is noteworthy. When we demand a gifted teacher's talent for wording things over the substance of the sermon, when we flock to entertaining speakers when others speak the same truth though maybe in a duller way, we lose something of real value in terms of discipleship and worship.

I'm thankful that in my own church our pastors rotate, and I can count on being similarly spiritually formed despite their variety of speaking styles. It's real worship no matter who speaks, and the purposes and blessings of Sabbath worship are accomplished regardless. I am hopeful that these changes at Redeemer will be a solid model for other congregations struggling with such issues.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

It's Complicated – Reflections on Fourteen Years of Marriage

Yesterday was our anniversary. My husband and I listed to Poison and Wine by the Civil Wars last night. It's a poignant song for couples of long term, loving, complicated marriages.
I don't have a choice, but I still choose you.
Our marriage is strong, and our genuine love and appreciation of each other is solid. It's actually quite life giving to me. Yet … it is complicated.

We have personality issues. We have gender issues (men really ARE from Mars, I am convinced). And we most certainly have sin issues. From multiple angles, the goal of two distinctly different people coming together to live as one seems hopeless without supernatural help. But somehow, when the Spirit enters the picture, the whole of our marriage becomes much more than the sum of its parts. It is indeed supernatural.

Love is the gas and grace is the oil that keeps the distinct moving parts of our marriage working together without the type of friction that destroys the machine. But there is a another analogy that may better reflect my experience in my own marriage. It's a rock tumbler – that thing that takes dull crushed rock and turns it into beautiful gemstones.

Some couples seem to be intrinsically unified about an unusual number of topics. They just think the same. That's completely foreign to me, because my husband and I come to almost every topic from very different angles. Yet, we have both noted how UTTERLY NECESSARY our distinct differences were to becoming the people we are today. “You make me want to be a better man,” Jack Nicholas says in As Good As It Gets. And that has been our experience. The differences have shaped and polished us.

Sometimes, the differences caused resentment. Sometimes I in particular have chafed against them. Life would be so much easier if we naturally thought alike, wouldn't it?! Easier, yes. But I'm coming to embrace and value what the struggles have meant for my transformation. For my polishing. Yes, our fourteen years have had their share of struggles that felt like rocks bashing against each other. Yet on the other side, we have transformed in the tumbler. 

It's complicated. And it's not easy. But it is good. And THAT is a supernatural working of a 3rd party, who is in our marriage though so often undetected. He has made us much more than the sum of our parts.