Saturday, December 27, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: God's Strange Work

Recently I read God's Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World by David Rowe (2008, Eerdmans). This is a well written work and a very even-handed treatment of the "Millerite turned Adventist" Movement which began in the 1830's and extended until some time past 1844 (the predicted end). Having spent sometime among the Seventh-day Adventists, as chronicled in my book on fundamentalism (you may read a sample chapter at SDA's have a certain "hagiography" surrounding Miller and the accuracy of his computations.

Miller was born in 1782 and, as the book demonstrates, was in many respects a product of late 18th and early 19th century America. He was raised in a (mostly) pious Baptist home and had early inclinations towards religion. As a young man, he was taken with the rationalism of the Deist writers and thinkers of his day. From this, he derived a strong preference for what could be reasonable and proven (hence his later attraction to heavenly arithmetic).

After serving in the War of 1812, Miller discovered that his Deism left him bankrupt when it came to the establishment of purpose and meaning in his life. Although he was raised in eastern New York, he had left for Vermont before his military service to escape the religiosity of his parents. When he found his life devoid of ultimate purpose, he resolved to return to his family farm in New York, which he did, wife and children in tow.

While living in New York, he became a prominent man of some means. He also held local political office. It was in New York through the study of the Bible (not quite as free from the commentary of others as his modern-day children might lead us to believe) that he embraced the principle-- one widely accepted by many writers of the day-- that in prophecy, one day was equivalent to one year. Approaching the 2300 day prophecy in Daniel he concluded it represent 2300 years and would culminate around 1843 or before (later changed to October 22, 1844). As Rowe points out, this conclusion was hardly unique to Miller, having been stated by many religious writers previous to Miller's discovery of the date.

At first (for years) he kept the belief to himself or shared it with only a few close associates. Then he seemed to sense God calling him to "tell it to the world." He was hesitant. Obviously, he knew that to many it would sound like a "crackpot" message. Nevertheless, in the early 1830's, Miller began his prophecy lecturing career. Much of it carried out when he was past 60.

It was actually popularizers, especially Joshua V. Himes, who "shepherded" Miller in such a way that the Millerite/Adventist message became a mass movement. It must be noted that there were many other "prophets" emerging in New England at that time-- especially Joseph Smith. In some ways, Millerism was a product of the same religious fervor that produced Mormonism. This must be said, however, Miller never applied the term "prophet" to himself, and except for his millenialism, he was pretty much an "Old School Baptist." He was decidedly a Calvinist. The Millerite Movement attracted tens of thousands of adherents (to one degree or another).

Of course, he missed the date. After the Great Disappointment, Millerites went on predicting dates for years to come. Some spiritualized the Second Coming, saying Christ came in some manner-- something happened on October 22, 1844. Miller vacillated on the many questions that perplexed bewildered followers until his death in 1848. Himes eventually returned to the Episcopal faith of his childhood. In the 1870's, he was ordained a priest. Millerites fractured into many splinter groups, always predicting or explaining, trying to make sense of the Movement and its failure of prediction.

All things considered, God's Strange Work is a worthwhile read. It gives many insights into the life of a complicated man-- albeit a man of his times.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Yet one more! JCA

To claim again
the love
I knew--
my Friend,
the Beginning and End,
and all the gifts,
and the wonder
of the Child.
Perhaps I've grown
too comfortable.
(Or too familiar
with the Story.)
The angel choirs
in the hours
of making sermons
and planning programs
all about You.
And somehow,
to miss it all
because the wonder
is gone.
I long for Christmas
Special days
gone by.
Let me fly away
to You
I know You are waiting
there for me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reflection of Christ

Another Advent/Christmas poem from several years ago-- JCA

I give you this day;
it is all I have--
these twenty-four hours.
And really,
it is only this one minute
given to me.
So much gets in the way--
drive away all that makes me sad.
Fill the jars of plain water within
and change it to
the wine of joy and freedom.
All I have is yours, Oh Lord.
All that I could ever hope to be.
Change my life that Christ
might be adored
by all who see
the life I live,
that in all
I might be a reflection of him.
Let me not live
in the gray, cloudy mist
and fog and haze
of earth.
Draw me ever higher,
and in me have your birth.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Something Different

Here we are, in the middle of the Advent/Christmas season. It seemed right to me, as I thought about it, to take a break from my "typical stuff" (so to speak) and take notice of the day. So, for my next few posting, I offer some original Advent poetry written over the past 10 years. I hope you enjoy....


Did you know?//Could you imagine?
I’ve always thought// Of him as the wisest,
The fairest//The one who gave all.
His death//The deepest sorrow
And Good Friday//My way out.
The One altogether lovely// “Wounded for my transgressions,
Crushed for my iniquities//Chastised for my peace.”
Yet it pleased the Lord//To give all He had
So I could walk in the garden//In the cool of the day
With him
He won my heart//By giving
Until he had nothing left//To give.
And you//Blessed Mary,
Did you know that on that day//You said yes,
When you were just//A young virgin child,
Of the sword that would//Pierce Your own soul?
You gave all//You gave all you had//To give.
Did you know the price?
You and he//Just two bewildered people
Called to bring the One.

You gave the One birth.
He also//In bewildered obedience
Taught the One//To work with his hands,
To chop wood//And shared the things
Of father and son.
Two people//Caught up in Something
Much bigger than themselves.
Once, my son was sick//Near death.
That too was a Christmas//And I wept
With no one to console me
To think that I might//Lose my son.
I would give my sons//The moon and the stars.
I would walk a million//Miles for them--
Gladly die you them.
Did you know//Most Highly Favored Lady;
Did you know blessed Joseph
How much your yes//Would cost?
The joy of a new life//Or the sound of a dirge.
To which sound did you//Say, “Yes?”
Did you know?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Of Salvation Army Bell Ringers, Preacher/Professors and Social Justice

No doubt about it, I have preached some real humdinger social justice sermons in my day. Here I am, approaching the 3rd. Sunday of Advent.  I've been reading all of those lectionary texts about "mountains and hills brought low,"  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," and the justice of God-- "God will cast down the kings from their thrones and lift up the meek and the lowly." "The hungry God has filled with good things; the rich God has sent away empty."  I've really been hitting it hard.

Then, tonight came (Dec. 11)-- a cold night in Owensboro.  I'd forgotten about my commitment. You see, a little over a month back, I cut my hand and had to get 25 stitches.  Today, in my college education professor job, I was taking a student teacher to meet the cooperating teacher she will work with next semester.  I'm pretty clumsy, and I fell in the parking lot-- right on the place where the stitches had recently been.  By the time I got home, I decided I was not having a good day.  Then my wife reminded me.

Brucie had called a few days back and asked if I would be a bell ringer at Kroger tonight.  I had forgotten.  But, I had promised Brucie when she called that I'd do it.  So, off I went.  And, did I mention, it was cold?

I took over for the guy before me.  He had been standing inside the store a good bit.  I decided that to be effective, I was going to have to get outside and stay there.  I smiled and said "Merry Christmas" to every one.  Some cut a wide path to avoid me.  Lot's walked right up and put some dough in the kettle.  Then it happened.  Someone said something to me like, "How long do they make you guys work at a time?"  I realized that my benefactor thought I was a paid bell ringer.

I remembered seeing some obviously needy folks, of a rather unsavory appearance, right across the way at K-Mart ringing the bell for hours on end.  I thought, "I don't want folks thinking I'm one of them.  I want them to know that I'm a respectable teacher/preacher donating my time to needy people.

You can see it coming, can't you?  My Advent texts.  Jesus came as a beggar, one of those people and found solidarity with them.  Was I any better?  I felt the shame of my judgmentalism.  I grabbed my bell, pulled my jacket around my neck and begin ringing for all I was worth.  Only this time, I tried to be a beggar.  After all, aren't we all?

Monday, December 15, 2008

On Christmas Silliness and Civil Religion

I noted in the religion page that there have been some mighty "strange happenings" in Washington state lately regarding Christmas displays, politics, freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and the nature of Christmas in a pluralistic society. After the state put the tried and true Christmas stuff on display, everybody wanted a piece of the Holiday Pie. Seems like there is something for everybody in today's civil religion.

Jewish folks, got a menorah. African Americans got some Kwanzaa stuff on display. Then, heavens no! The Atheist demanded a place at the table and offered a Holiday Greetings reminding us that religion is irrational and doesn't make folks moral.

I got to thinking, maybe I should demand a display as well. Maybe I could represent the thousands of fat, ex-fundamentalist, college professor/preachers that are often ignored. After all, we do our part for the good old US of A as well. Don't we deserve our own piece of lettuce in the Salad Bowl?

Now, if you don't want to offend anybody, there is my dear friend Katy. Katy is a frustrated, sort-of evangelicalish writer of Christian fiction. She's a good writer. She's had a few things published, so I think it is fair to say that she is a contributor to the rich faith heritage that makes the fabric of our nation. We need a Katy sign on the lawn pronto! Now will take care of representimg the frustrated writing community.

Then there's the Jehovah's Witnesses....No. I take it back. Non-participators. Oh, forget the whole damn deal.... I mean... I was only trying to give everybody equal time.

Well, there is my friend Paul, the Baha'i. Only thing is, he is BIG TIME into the whole environmental deal. That might, you know, give the Atheists a bad name if they had to share space with a religiously-oriented Tree Hugger.

Maybe though, just maybe, the whole deal is so ridiculous it isn't worth my time. Who cares what sits on the capital lawn? I wish them all the best-- Happy Holidays, and many Happy Returns of the Day.

I think I hear Irene telling me it's time for us to light the Advent Wreath. Don't think I'll be doing that at the capital lawn. Nope, we'll probably just rake some stuff off the dinner table, read a thought or two, light the candle, and say a prayer. Amen.

I'm sure as hell not going to worry about who gets some space on the lawn at Frankfort. Think I'll leave that to the Zoroastrians.

Friday, December 12, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Quitting Church

Recently, I read the book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It by Julia Duin (2008, BakerBooks). Duin is the religion editor for the Washington Times. I discovered a stark contrast between Quitting Church and What Americans Really Believe (reviewed below, see post on 12/2). Overall, I found Duin's assessment of the evangelical world much more in keeping with most major polls (some conducted by evangelicals such as Barna-- to whom she frequently refers). I think this is a useful, thoughtful book, well considered and carefully nuanced to match the realities of church life as it is currently reflected in evangelical churches.

A major point that Duin makes concerns the Jesus Movement of the late 60's and early 70's. This definitely caught my attention. I was there, living in community, a part of it all. In fact, my book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism, reaches many of the same conclusions as Duin (to read chapters from my book on my experiences in the Jesus Movement and why I abandoned fundamentalism visit There was something about those days and the community that existed among believers that was healing, real, and alive. Still, we differ in our final analysis. In the end, I believe that fundamentalism/evangelicalism is logically and empirically broken beyond fixing. Duin, on the other hand, writes as an evangelical who still holds to the evangelical faith/practices (except, perhaps, in regards to the status or lack thereof accorded women in evangelicalism). Still, she sees that days of the Jesus Movement as "glory days," just as I often tend to view the Movement as well.

Duin does not see as much ineffectiveness in churches that reach out to the "twenty-somethings." In that arena, the seeker churches and emergent churches have made a real impact. Yet, the model offered by the seeker environment appears shallow and empty to the "thirty-somethings" and baby-boomers. These folks are tired of shallow worship, authoritarian pastors, and the disenfranchisement of women. Many of these folks sense an environment devoid of much spiritual power.

In her research of alternative models of "the way things used to be" (if one may speak in such contradictions), Duin spent sometime at the International House of Prayer associated with Mike Bickle and located in Kansas City. I grew up in Kansas City and was associated with Agape Fellowship, the original expression of the Jesus Movement in the city, living for some time at the communal house. I well remember when Mike Bickle began his ministry in Kansas City in the late 70's. Although Duin seems to see Bickle as an exemplary figure in the Charismatic side of the Jesus Movement, most of us who were there watched as South Kansas City Fellowship (Bickle's original endeavor) went though change after change-- first independent, then a Vineyard Church (with many versions of how that arrangement came to an end), then the "laughing church, Toronto Blessing" phase, then this, then that, and now IHOP. While addressing it to some degree, Duin minimizes the nuttiness of some of the Charismatic/evangelical "movements" as well as the tendency among evangelicals (especially Charismatics) to change almost with the seasons of the year-- always looking for a new way to create a "Spirit high."

Still, her point that the seeker churches bring young folks in the front door, while many long time evangelicals, mourning the "Ichabod" condition, as the glory has departed from evangelical "Israel," are exiting the back door is well taken. She sees some hope in the current house church movement, but notes the tendency to institutionalize even in that environment.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. Really, although her diagnosis of the problem as an internal condition among the evangelical faithful is probably on target (but not for those of us who have abandoned the absolutist position-- our concerns lie in a different direction), her solutions are a bit meager. All things considered, the book is well written, thoughtful, and timely. I recommend adding this book to your reading list.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

That They May Be One-- Part 3

So why bother? If you are right about being one in the Lord, why do you go on and on about all of this stuff? Why bother to tell others that Jesus is God? Why go to such lengths to promote a certain view of the Bible, a view that some might say undermines faith? Why, contrary to many of the other believers in a larger hope, do you make waves by arguing so forcefully for humanity's free will? Why indeed?

Congratulations! You have just found the MOST IMPORTANT Part of this little confession. Maybe you are a believer in a larger hope. You can't pin down where this is all going. Some of it you like, but sometimes it seems to you like I'm talking just like Christians have always talked-- "Babylon Stuff!" Maybe you are an "orthodox evangelical." First, some stuff seems pretty straight to you. But now, after reading a bit, you find yourself saying, "Man! This guy is way too liberal for me!"

But if you have read all of this stuff, here you are. And I think you deserve an answer. So here it is. I think the WHOLE DEAL (you know, LIFE, the UNIVERSE, EVERYTHING) is all about the character of God. That's it. That's all of it.

It seems like the Jews grew in their understanding of God. Early on, they looked at the gods of their neighbors and saw Yahweh as the BIG GUY. "Who is like you, Lord among the gods?" As time went on, they came to see Yahweh as the only God. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One." It is this one God that we are interested in knowing.

God gave us the Bible, I fully believe that. He gave it just as it is. This is why I talk about the Bible as casebook or codebook. If it is a casebook, a case history of God dealing with his friends-- friends that sometimes misunderstood him-- we can begin to see why Jesus' view of things was so radically different than Joshua's. Joshua thought God told him to take the Promised Land and mercilessly kill all of its inhabitants, men, women, boys and girls, babies. But Jesus said that he did not come to destroy people's lives but to save them.

God is radically honest. He wants us to see exactly how his friends have acted and how they have struggled to find the way. He wants us to see how, step-by-step, we are lead to a view of Yahweh as the kind Abba (Daddy) that Jesus knew and proclaimed. You see, it all boils down to God's character. It is a very important question, whether Jesus is God or not. If Jesus is God, that means God hangs around with sinners, touches lepers, washes dirty feet, cries, laughs, gets angry, and dies even as he forgives his executioners.

It is supremely important if God casts folks into an eternal hell. If one lie means eternal damnation, then we have God as the ancient oriental despot. But if God reconciles his enemies and never forecloses but always respects OUR freedom, the situation is radically different. That means that God, who knows all things, would never create someone with the intent of destruction them. It means that no one is beyond his love.

What he wants is a love relationship. So free will is of the utmost importance. You might say that God prizes nothing more than our free will. Love, if the Apostle Paul is right, does not force or coerce. It woos and wins the object it seeks. God cannot do other than allow us the freedom to say "NO." Yet he never forecloses. He relentlessly loves that all might be won to him.

It matters if a Christian bears arms and fights and wars. This says something about the God s/he represents. How can s/he represent the Guy who gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and fight for country or king? We have only one True King, and he calls us to a battle where our weapons are not "carnal" but spiritual.

We all pray for many things. But how often do we just shut-up, sit down and love God from the heart for just twenty minutes?

So this is it. This is why it matters. Who is God? What is God like? "The whole universe waits for the revelation of the children of God." All creation waits for a knowledge of who God is, God's character. That's why it matters.

Monday, December 8, 2008

That They May Be One-- Part 2

In 1 Cor. 15 Paul tells us the content of the gospel he preached. "The Messiah died for our sins, exactly as the scriptures tell it....He was buried....He was raised on the third day" (MES). That's the gospel. But what about_______ (you fill in your main concern)? What about it? Read 1 Cor. 15 for yourself. THAT'S THE GOSPEL!!!!

Of course, the gospel does have lifestyle implications. But do not confuse the implications with the gospel. The implications are our love gift to God. Salvation is God's love gift to us. It is clear that Christians should be the most moral people on earth. They should also be the most kind and understanding. When it comes to lifestyle, we are all at different places. Discussion, convincement? Certainly, there is a place for that. But not rejection. Only those without sin can throw the stones (words spoken concerning a prostitute). If we lead folks to Christ and his word, and if they accept him from the heart, we must leave them in God's hands. Certainly, we should never reject people over ideas. I don't know about you, but I know a bit about me. I became a believer in 1971. My ideas have changed many times since then. There is little charity in the words heretic or cult. Be careful what you say. By your words, says the scripture, you will be justified or condemned.

I believe, just like the creed says, that Jesus was "Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father." But I know of people, some with very Christlike characters and sincere believers in the larger hope, who believe that Christ was definitely NOT God and was a created being. They will affirm that he is the Son of God, sinless, preexistent, and incarnate. But to these folks, to talk of a Trinity or make Jesus fully God smacks of polytheism. And, yep, the early Christians struggled over this too. I guess I've got to say (Arrggh....!) that if they believe that Christ died for their sins, was buried, and rose from the dead, they pass the gospel test. Even my "fire and brimstone" friends, if they accept Christ as their Savior, pass the "test."

Now I don't like either of those beliefs. But I don't think that I can go beyond the gospel. Acceptance of the gospel defines a Christian, not agreement with certain thoughts or ideas. Ouch! Hurts doesn't it?

My best friends (not counting my wife of course!) recently sent their kid off to college. She is a beautiful Christian girl. She isn't (and her parents aren't) in agreement with me at all about this hell deal. They would be considered by most much more traditional evangelicals. Anyway, she went to a certain "Christian" college. She was baptized as a believer but didn't see baptism or other practices quite the way the sponsoring denomination did. Because she did not agree with everything they believed many of her fellow students doubted the genuineness of her Christianity.
How pathetic that we treat each other like this! I know of some who have no use at all for any organized church because they disagree with "churchy ideas." That is, of course, their prerogative. Still, I think it is sad how often we attack and resent each other over "religion." What about the Master's prayer? Doesn't it matter?

I once heard a little poem that describes our sad condition.

Think as I think,
No more, no less,
That I am right and no one else.
Say what I say.
Do just what I do.
And then and ONLY then
Will I have fellowship with you!

Friday, December 5, 2008

That They May Be One

In his Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus earnestly prayed to the Father that his followers might be one. Two-thousand years later, how are we doing? Miserably, I'd say. We are anything but one. Christ's Body, his glory, his witness, the church, is fragmented into thousands of little "camps." Some are built on distinctive doctrines, others more on distinctive practices. And, add to this that even within ecclesial communities, many of us have our pet beliefs. The root of Babble (as in the Tower of...) is the notion of confusion. The church is a towering Babble.

Certainly, I'm not writing to suggest that I have the solution that will unite us all and make us all think alike. Yes, it's been tried. Some with creeds, others with covenants, and yet others have attempted to use church discipline as a way of achieving the oneness Christ so longed for. Still, it hasn't worked. The church is less "one" than it's ever been. I don't know of any way to make us all think alike. Some might say back to the Bible. Aren't we all reading the same one now? What I purpose is a very simple platform. We will not achieve unity in all details of belief. Not now, maybe never. But I do think that St. Paul gives us some keys that may help us. In Romans 14 Paul tells us to accept each other and not pass judgment on others because we disagree with them about "disputable matters." I like the way The Message puts it, "Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do." It's a bold statement. He goes on to give many examples. Some might say, "Hey, now wait a minute. That chapter is about disagreements about stuff like food, and keeping certain holy days. It's not about anything really important."

Maybe these folks will say that they only refuse to accept others that disagree with them about MAJOR, GIGANTIC things like, oh let's say: Abortion (I think it's wrong.), Warfare (I think the New Testament teaches Christians shouldn't bear arms.), The rapture (I think that idea is contraindicated.), Hell (Well, you can read the web page on that one!), The inerrancy of the Bible (I certainly don't accept this in the conventional sense.), The Christian Right ( I don't think you should mix religion and politics to create a "civil religion" and expect all to conform.), Women pastors (I'm all for it!).

My list could go on. But I think if I listed enough items, I could make about everyone angry. So could you! Now, some would say these are great BIG you are/aren't saved sorts of things. But, you see that's it exactly. To the early church food, Sabbath-keeping, and other such insignificant things were great BIG you are/aren't saved sorts of things! Maybe you think the early church had her act much more together. Forget it! I was a seminary student in Historical Theology when I first discovered the notion of universal reconciliation. Yes, it was widespread in the early centuries of the church. But, so was the belief in annihilation. Within a hundred years of the apostles, Justin Martyr was already making very clear reference to that belief. He must have gotten it somewhere! Hell was around too-- and I mean the eternal variety! I can't think of a church history textbook that does not admit that pacifism was widespread in the early church. Yet we know there were Christian soldiers. Beware of anyone that says "The early church (as in ALL the early church) believed...." It would be very nice. But it is not quite so neat as all that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: What Americans Really Believe

Recently, I picked up the book, What Americans Really Believe, by Rodney Stark and others. As near as I can figure, the book is an outgrowth of the sociology department at Baylor University. All of the authors (there are several) save one are Baylor social science faculty. The book is a report and analysis of a 2007 survey conducted by Gallop for Baylor regarding religious beliefs of Americans.

If one were to read the book, especially the analysis of the data collected, one would get the opinion that the authors are saying a few things loud and clear and in many, many ways:
  1. Evangelical churches are thriving
  2. Most Americans are really evangelical in their outlook
  3. The Mainline denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) are irrelevant and on their way out.
  4. Even those in those dying denominations think a whole lot like evangelicals.
  5. Evangelical churches (not to be redundant-- the authors sure are!) are thriving.
As I see it, the book supplies some useful data. But, it is dismissive of other major surveys of the religious landscape. The claim is thus: If only the other major surveys asked the right questions, they would know that we are right. And, I might add, they dismiss just about everybody. Now, I quoted some earlier Baylor surveys in my book (see left sidebar). As I said, they have something to say. Still, I think this idea-- others ask the wrong (or maybe right) questions in the wrong way-- plays both ways. Hey, Baylor Folks, did it ever occur to you that YOU might be asking the wrong questions in the wrong ways? It's sad that Baylor's Southern Baptist agenda comes through so loud and clear from scholars in a fine institution whom one would think would embrace impartiality. (Compare the Baylor survey to the recent Pew "Religious Landscape Survey.")

I am also concerned that Baylor seems to dismiss even its own data when it appears to be uncomplimentary. For example, charts included in the book indicate that those with the most evangelical/fundamentalist orientation are the least open to new experience. As has been frequently noted, evangelicals/fundamentalists are often xenophobic and easily threatened by different views, issues of diversity, etc. They have made up their mids and don't want to be "confused by the facts." This seems to be implied by the Baylor data, but it remains unexamined.

Even the Baylor survey indicates that only around 35 percent of Americans are "churched" in any meaningful sense. Other surveys have indicated that the "unaffiliated but spiritual" group is the fastest growing segment on the religious landscape. Baylor attempts (poorly) to show that this group is really some variant of the "religious" and probably Christian (perhaps evangelical as well??). It is such dismissive treatment of research conducted by those who do not share the Southern Baptist fundamentalist paradigm and the far-fetched conclusions reached that brings the entire Baylor endeavor into question. I guess I expected more sociology and less "faith-based" apologetics from such a fine institution.

All-in-all, I'm disappointed!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Public Schools, Release Time, and Separation of Church and State

A recent case in Huntington, IN demonstrates the fine line that government and government agencies must tread in an attempting to deal even-handedly with religion. The case in question regards release time from public school for religious education. The issue of release time is an old one, going back many years in American jurisprudence. Release time has both won and lost its day in court, and has been on trial almost more times than one would want to recount.

What release time is all about is allowing children to leave the regular school program, usually for an hour or less a day or week, to receive religious education during school hours. Usually, the children go to a portable trailer or some structure not directly connected to the school. Parental permission must be obtained. A student or parent may decline a child's participation.

At issue in the Huntington case is the use of the school parking lot and electricity. Since these are provided via taxpayer's funds and since taxation is to be conducted for the common good and not sectarian promotion, many find the idea of release time inappropriate. Others find the notion a school even making religious instruction available during school time to be a tacit endorsement of a particular religion on the school's part.

Although conservative Christian parents may point out that attendance is voluntary and that their children have a "right" to a religious education, it begs the question: Why on school and time (and possibly property or expense)? It's like the old "prayer in school deal." Why should a time to pray be officially recognized by schools when students can pray in school virtually anytime they want? If religious organizations are so keen on offering religious education to kids, why not offer it when school is not in session? Are they afraid that, given the choice between free time and religion, parents and kids will opt for free time? Is it a case of trying to "make" kids be religious? If it is so important to parents, why do they not see to it that kids receive religious education outside of school?

Schools walk a fine line. They are government agencies, and as such they are not in the religion business. On the other hand, religion is a very real part of society and culture. As such, schools should teach plenty ABOUT religion, but nothing about HOW to be religious, whether in a school building or in a trailer in the parking lot.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Law Against Helping the Homeless?

In Brookville, PA, the First Apostle's Doctrine Church has open the parsonage to the homeless for the past several years.  The church is located about 80 miles from Pittsburgh.  Why does the church do this?  The pastor states that the church is attempting to following the Bible's teachings concerning the Christian responsibility to care for the poor, needy, and homeless. That would seem like a laudable goal.  If the church doesn't "step up to the plate" and help the homeless, who is going to do it?

It seems as if the city fathers don't agree.  The borough recently cited the congregation for zoning violations.  Although the church had been offering this service for some years, the city decided they had had enough.

Amazing.  In this time of economic upheaval and increasing homelessness, a city government would actually take away the only opportunity that some folks might have to find relief from the elements and perhaps a hot meal.

Still, this is nothing new.  I have seen battles in my own community over this very concern. Neighborhoods are concerned about safety.  While we must grant that the homeless certainly have an inordinate share of "problem people"-- many mentally ill (remember the Reagan Administrations little gift of dumping the very sick out on the streets in the 80's?), we are faced with the problem of what we are going to do with these folks?  I don't know about you, but I'm only stay a paycheck or two ahead of being broke myself.  What if we were in their shoes?  It's not impossible, you know (think economics-- think Great Depression).

It's been popular to ask, "What would Jesus do?"  If that is not just so much rhetoric, maybe it is time to ask.  What would he do?  (Matthew 25-- hint)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Should Abortion be a Universal Human Right? Who is Really "Pro-life?"

I noted in my local newspaper that a Swedish feminist political party, known as the Feminist Initiative Party, is making a push for the EU to recognize abortion as a universal human right. This is a bold step.  Although it merited reporting in the international press, I would predict that the identification of abortion as a universal human right on a par with clean water or access to medical care (which the US unfortunately does not view as a right) has a very long "row to hoe."  Many European governments, while not outright banning abortion, make obtaining an abortion difficult.

We live in a very "label challenged" world.  Those who are inclined to make abortion generally easy and universally available (and sometimes paid for by the government) usually adopt the title "pro-choice."  Yet, when I listen to the pro-choice rhetoric, I really don't hear "pro-choice." What I hear is "pro-abortion"-- vehement and angry.  Still, that side of the debate, generally opposes capital punishment, supports social welfare programs, agitates for famine relief in Africa, and a whole slue of worthy positions.

The other side, the so-called "pro-life" are not really pro-life-- at least not all the way.  What they want is a legal remedy putting and end to abortion.  I don't think things are quite that simple.  Abortion was a major issue for 20% or less of the overall US electorate in the 2008 presidential election.  Further, this side overwhelmingly supports capital punishment, the Iraq War, very limited social programs.  I would hardly call their views consistent with the moniker "pro-life."

Let's get real.  I think abortion, in most cases, is morally wrong.  Still, I don't think that, after all of these years of legal abortion, making abortion illegal will result in anything but civil disobedience and outright "revolution" of a sort.  If one really wants to stop the tide of abortion, it would seem to me that enacting laws and social policies-- including incentives to give birth to an unwanted child-- would be the path to take.

Finally, let pro-life truly be PRO-LIFE.  Yet us stand for life and see that any attitude or action that diminishes life contributes to a death culture.  Those truly pro-life need to refuse the violence of the War, denounce capital punishment, lobby for children's and parent's health care and a livable wage, and act in life-affirming ways in all they do.  Any death-affirming policies diminish all of us.  It strikes a blow against the power of life-- strong though fragile as it is.  Let pro-life be pro-life indeed!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Education Reform, NCLB, the Religious Right, and Other (sometimes) Scary Stuff

One reads a great deal concerning education reform nowadays. It might almost seem as if this were some new trend in education. Indeed, it is not. I have been an educator for over thirty years. My field of expertise is reading. After teaching in a regular elementary classroom for a couple of years, I completed a master's degree in reading and learning disabilities. Except for a five year break to attend seminary and serve as a full time minister, I have been a teacher of elementary reading. In 1995, I completed a doctorate in reading/educational psychology. At that point, I began teaching reading methods in a college setting.

Over my thirty years of involvement in education, I have seen many, many reforms. Some have come from the right, others from the left. In the field of reading, when I began my teaching, basal reading programs were in, and we attempted to teach every skill known to humanity. Next, whole language gained quite a following. Next, an oldie, but a popular one, reappeared: phonics. Now we are emphasizing a balanced approached-I think that is likely a step in the right direction.

We can easily extend this discussion beyond the boundaries of reading. When I started attending elementary school in 1960, math was a "drill and kill" activity. The expectation was learning of the basic math facts and procedures whether you understood them or not. It is rather easy to see if you learned under this method. Just attempt to explain "conceptually" why 1/2 divided by 4 is 1/8, and why to arrive at that one must "invert and multiply." I am surprised at how many cannot explain the multiplication and division of fractions at the conceptual level.

When I was about half way through my elementary school education, the so-called "new math" hit the educational world. I remember well spending most of my fourth-grade year (when it started in Kansas City) marking that 5 + 2 > 1 + 3. I liked this math. I was not too good at the old stuff, and I found this a breeze.

People become very opinionated about educational reform. I have seen many a battle over the issue of whole language vs. phonics. It seems like everyone gets involves. Classroom teachers form strong opinions. Politicians form strong opinions and include reform as part their political platform. They know education is a hot button issue with voters. One group that I watch with great diligence is the religious right. It seems as if they have turned such aspects of educational reform as phonics-based reading instruction and support for the No Child Left Behind Act into something resembling religious dogma. It seems to make little sense, turning reading methods into a religious or quasi-religions crusade, but that is what the leaders of the religious right seem committed to support (James Dobson, for example).

I reiterate: educational reform is not new. With that notion disposed of, I would like to suggest three principles of any lasting and useful educational reform. These are characteristics of reform supported over the long haul by much research and dictated by commonsense. I have arrived at these through observation of reform cycles that I have seen throughout my years of work as an educator.

First, education reform cannot be test-driven. Currently, the watchword is accountability. From this perspective, teachers are cagey, lazy actors who need to have their feet held to the fire to make them perform. I have observed thousands of teachers over the years, worked with thousands of pre-service teachers, and supervised well over a hundred student teachers. I must admit, one does rarely encounter a lazy, careless teacher, but it is unusual. The attempt to control teachers and student achievement by means of standardized tests is a misguided approach.

A recent study by the Educational Testing Service, makers of the SAT and nationally used teacher certification exams, revealed that there is much in student performance that cannot be controlled by schools. In fact, ETS discovered four variables: absenteeism, the percent of children living in single parent families, the amount of television kids watch, and how much preschoolers are read to daily by caregivers (especially parents) were very accurate predictors of reading test results used for No Child Left Behind reporting in eighth-grade. It seems that learning involves many variables (the four factors accounted for over two-thirds of the differences in aggregated state testing results). Home factors are things that schools and teachers cannot control.

Instead of testing and testing yet more, a better use of funding would be the improvement of conditions for parents and families. Funding Head Start results in a measurable increase in IQ scores for disadvantaged children. Why not continue to fund enriched environments for Head Start children when they leave the program and help retain ground already gained? Why not fund more "parents as first teachers" programs to go into the homes and teach parents how to help get their preschoolers ready for school? Why not spend more money eradicating poverty-especially since that seems to be the real issue?

Second, an effective reform program would insist on scope and sequence. By scope, I refer to the content taught, by sequence, I refer to when content is to be mastered. This was one of the downfalls of the whole language movement. It taught reading without any real coordination of materials, curriculum, or expectations for mastery in terms of when expected benchmarks should be met. Much more coordination of teaching needs to take place and curriculum guides and agreed upon content are essential.

At the same time, I am not implying that methodology needs to be completely standardized. There needs to be some general guidelines on how to go about doing things. Still, teaching is as much art as science. To address methodology too much turns teaching into a mechanical act, and we know that the relationship, or blending, of teacher and learner are all important concepts. What we need are standards and benchmarks without denying teachers the authority to make hundreds and thousands of critical decisions each day. What we need are flexible standards and flexible benchmarks.

Lastly, we need a new way of doing things. After all of the years of reform, after all the years of researching what works, an amazing trend is notable. Educational critic and researcher, John Goodlad, notes that the most common activity one observes in today's elementary schools is seatwork (i.e. worksheets, quiet work from textbooks, etc). The most common activity noted in high schools is lectures. Both of these approaches are notoriously ineffective. Just consider lectures, for example, how often do you "zone out" during sermons? And, if you do attend, what keeps you "plugged in?"

We have lost the wisdom shared with us by John Dewey so many years ago and supported by study after study. Children learn best by doing. Kids need to make a classroom democracy, not just study government in their civics textbook. They need to come up with ways they can recycle and begin a neighborhood recycling program, not just read about pollution. Education needs to become real. The real is better than the contrived. As psychologist Jerome Bruner has pointed out, doing is better than seeing, and seeing is better than just reading or hearing about something. Probably the best approach combines all three methods.

Reforms come and go. However, on these three principles, we can arrive at a reform that will stand the test of time. All of us want our schools to improve. Isn't it time to skip the political rhetoric of the right (including the religious right) and the left and do what is best for kids? Isn't it about time?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Don't Confuse Faith and Knowledge-- They Simply Aren't the same!

When I was a seminarian, one of my professors was fond of reminding us that the Bible was "a book about how to go to heaven, not a book about how the heavens go." That was many years ago, and it was a transition time in my life. Having been raised in a fundamentalist church, I "chucked it all" when I entered high school. It wasn't long until I was fully caught-up in the tail end of the hippie movement, already petering out in the late 60's and early 70's. When I was still in high school, my dad, who was born in 1909, had taken all of the hair, rock and roll, political rebellion, and drug trips he could endure. He wanted me out. At age fifteen, I was kicked out of my parents home. Really, I was quite happy about the arrangement. Home was entirely too square. I lived for some time by panhandling, mooching, stealing, and getting stoned. I really was having a good time. Then, I encountered something new, the Jesus Freaks. Theses folks were just as fundamentalist as the church of my childhood, but they still managed to remain hip.

It is a long story, but I recognized they had something I wanted: certainty. Events went from there into a happy fundamentalist oblivion for the next several years. But, in the back of my mind I was always haunted by the question, "How do you know?" The answer was supplied by fundamentalist leaders. I knew that I knew that I knew because the Bible said so, or as a popular bumper sticker had it, God said it! I believe it! That settles it! The Bible became the court of no appeals. If the Bible said it, it must be true. That worked pretty well until I got to college. Then other notions came my way that made that approach appear as circular thinking. They were notions that made sense to me. I tried to talk it over with our leaders. They told me, "Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts." It didn't help much.

Eventually, I arrived at the point that I was rapidly losing all faith. Then a revelation came to me. There are two ways of knowing. One way is by means of our senses and investigation. This is the way of science. That is "true" which can be empirically proven to be true. We live in a world of observation. The Bible is full of stories about the sea parting, the sun standing still (as if it moved), a fingerless hand writing on a wall, a worldwide flood in which one guy and his family, out of all the people in the world, and two of each kind of animal, escape on a boat, people living to be 900 years old and much, much more. Yet, no one can claim to have observed any of these things in reality. We are left with two choices: These things used to happen but no longer occur, or these things never really happened at all. Compare these stories to the religious myths of ancient Israel's surrounding neighbors, and you will discover they are full of similar, but different, impossible stories.

My conclusion about it all is that the Bible stories, likewise, are myths, intending to convey a point, and largely irrelevant when it comes to teaching about science, cosmology, or unbiased history. There is a second way to know truth. It is through the myths. Myth is an avenue of truth. But it is different from observational truth. Is it just "play" truth? No. I would argue that the ancient myths of the Bible are "super truth." They contain truth that will endure long after today's factual news is forgotten (as history bears out).

In Michael Shermer's book, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Shermer cites research concerning the beliefs of Americans relative to creation and evolution. Reading his data, I would say Americans are rather evenly divided on the issue of natural selection vs. creation. This is interesting, since the weight of evidence is heavily in favor of some variety of evolution. As he points out, the US is the only industrialized western society where this is really an issue any longer. To what do we attribute this? Isn't all about a basic confusion and fear? It is about confusion because many Americans seem to have been taught that the Bible is indeed "a book about how the heavens go." It is based in fear because fundamentalist religious leaders have led the faithful to believe that if the Bible is anything less than factually true in all it proclaims, it is completely untrustworthy. It is a sad state of affairs. We are called upon to depart from commonsense and live in a world of make-believe. This leads to other problems. Seeing the Bible as absolute in all it affirms for all times and places leads to intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and yet more fear of diversity. In our modern world, it is a price society can no longer afford to pay.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Atonement Story # 2

Here's Another version:

Story # 1...

God made people. God said, “Take care of things down here on the earth. Have a good time. But what ever you do, don’t go eating THOSE apples! If you do, you’ll die!”

The two young lovers had a great time gardening until one day they decided that MAYBE, God had misled them a bit about the apples. So they thought they’d just take a bite.

Boy! Was God mad! God was so mad that God said, “I’ve got to kill them both or the whole of creation will come unglued. They broke the rules. That means I must kill them. Probably have to torment them forever to restore balance to the universe too.”

But God is kind of soft hearted (although God already knew that all of this stuff was going to happen and already knew that God was going to be soft hearted). God said, “I love them too much to kill them, so I’ll come down to where they live as a human. I’ll still be God. I’ll be perfect. Since I’m going to be a perfect human as well as true God, I’ll kill myself in their place. I’ll die and they’ll go free. It is the ONLY way to make amends for breaking the laws I’ve given them. If they will accept this swap, I’ll cut them loose from the penalty they owe.

Story # 2...

My dad really loves me. He is a well known and prominent community leader. But, let’s say that I don’t go his way. Nope, I get a tattoo, put an earring in my tongue, and join a rap group. I get caught up in sex and drugs.

I steal $30,000 from my dad’s safe for drugs. Then, I get busted for possession. It hits all of the papers. Dad is really embarrassed, not to mention the loss of a considerable amount of hard earned money.

First offense, so I get probation on the drug charge. I’m living with my friends, depressed, angry, and lonely. This was not how I was raised by my loving, kind father. I am estranged from him.

One day, dad calls in tears. He says that he wants me to come home, to start again. But I am ashamed. I’ve ripped him off and I’ve brought dishonor to the family name (which I know means a lot to him). He says he doesn’t care. He will accept the loss of the money. He will accept and deal with the shame. All I have to do is accept his gift of forgiveness.

I’m not sure. If I accept the gift, I’m admitting that dad is right about how to live and that I’ve blown it. I have to admit that I have been in the wrong, that I’ve wronged him and that I need his forgiveness. I have to admit that the only way to get right is by the actions he takes. In his forgiving, in any forgiving, there is pain. The pain we cause others, the pain we cause “our DAD,” and the pain we cause ourselves

My dad could turn me over to the cops for taking what is rightfully his. He could forget about me and let me rot with my friends. But he takes the initiative as well as the pain and offers to set me free. But for the forgiveness to be complete, I have a part. I must admit my wrong and need. I must accept the gift.

Which version speaks to you?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two Stories of the Atonement

Two stories which do you like best?

Story # 1...

God made people. God said, “Take care of things down here on the earth. Have a good time. But what ever you do, don’t go eating THOSE apples! If you do, you’ll die!”

The two young lovers had a great time gardening until one day they decided that MAYBE, God had misled them a bit about the apples. So they thought they’d just take a bite.

Boy! Was God mad! God was so mad that God said, “I’ve got to kill them both or the whole of creation will come unglued. They broke the rules. That means I must kill them. Probably have to torment them forever to restore balance to the universe too.”

But God is kind of soft hearted (although God already knew that all of this stuff was going to happen and already knew that God was going to be soft hearted). God said, “I love them too much to kill them, so I’ll come down to where they live as a human. I’ll still be God. I’ll be perfect. Since I’m going to be a perfect human as well as true God, I’ll kill myself in their place. I’ll die and they’ll go free. It is the ONLY way to make amends for breaking the laws I’ve given them. If they will accept this swap, I’ll cut them loose from the penalty they owe.

Story number two in two days! Come back and read it!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Isn't it Odd?

Isn't it Odd...

Isn't it odd...

  • That although the relationship of Christ to the church is often likened to a marriage in the Bible, people continue to view God as demanding their love? No one would want to marry a person who said "Love me and marry me or I'll kill you." Or, "If you don't marry me, I torment you forever." I asked Irene to marry me because of a deep abiding love for her. Still, I wouldn't have wanted her to agree to marry me if she did not freely choose to. We marry for love and because we want to spend our life with the object of our affections. We fall in love because of the tenderness, kindness, and respect of the other. We marry because we want to; because we want to spend our life with the other, not because he or she demands it. Isn't it odd that we are better lovers than God?

  • That although Paul says love does not keep a record of wrongs and Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good to them, and treat them kindly, because this is being perfect like the Father in heaven, God is exempt from all of this? Isn't it odd that God requires us to be more loving than God is?

  • That we are told that God is love and that love is defined very plainly in the Bible (1 Cor. 13) as being humble, kind, caring, forever enduring, thinking the best of others, patient, and merciful, and, yet, God violates virtually every principle defined there?

  • That a parent would never consider killing his/her child for a wrong done and that we are encouraged to discipline them for their own good, but God will assign a person to eternal perdition for one (any) blunder? Isn't it odd that we are better, kinder parents than God is, although Jesus calls us evil parents and parents that fall far short of the Heavenly Parent?

  • That there is not a just judge on earth who would consider it justice to impose the death penalty on a brother or parent in place of the guilty party, but God calls that justice?

  • That we would never impose the death penalty on a child for stealing a cookie, but the merciful God Almighty does?

  • That Christians who believe the penalty for sin is annihilation or hell say that Jesus paid the debt. Why then do they celebrate his resurrection when the penalty he must pay is an eternal one?

  • That Jesus would die for our sins and yet kill us for them?

Now, I know some will say, "What about this Bible verse?" I can quote Bible verses too. In 1654, George Fox wrote, "No creature can read the scriptures to profit thereby, but who come to the Light and Spirit that gave them forth." No one can correctly understand the Bible apart from the character of God. This was shown forth most clearly in Christ on the cross. As Paul says, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself..." Christ's act was to show God's love to the world, not to appease a hate-filled God.

We all have the same Bible. Why then do some see love, and others wrath? A simple story may sum-up the point well. I never believed chiropractors could solve any problems, but once I went to one out of desperation. As we discussed chiropractic, he told me that he had used many of the same texts as medical doctors in chiropractic college. "How could that be?" I asked. "The ideas of chiropractic are very different then those of conventional medicine." "We do use many of the same books," he assured me. "I guess it depends on how you read them!"

Isn't it odd...?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Perspectives on Spititual Direction

The purpose of this posting is to offer a reflective review and analysis of two books by Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (1998), and Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, (1992) . I think it proper to begin with an observation that applies to Guenther’s books in particular. In no way can I say that I have encountered a satisfactory definition of the term spiritual direction. I am left with the sense that it is a bit like quality art. We cannot really define it, but we know it when we see it. Is that satisfying? No.

Nevertheless, after reading the books and considering the evidence, I must admit it to be the case. When Guenther struggles to convey what she speaks of when talking of spiritual direction, she is not playing semantic games. It is an enterprise (?) truly defying definition. She is clear that spiritual direction is not psychoanalysis. It is not pastoral counseling. It does partake of characteristics of both. Yet, it is different. Guenther stakes out her ground on this when she speaks of the role of self-disclosure in spiritual direction.

After carefully reading both books, I think that I would define spiritual direction as listening to and helping to create a story. The role of story seems to jump off the page and encounters me as a very necessary and central element in spiritual direction. It is the role of the spiritual director to help the directee tell his/her story. In fact, if I understand where Guenther is coming from on this one, the director becomes a very real and essential part of the story himself. He or she has a role to play in moving the story of faith along.

Another image that comes to mind is that of the Bedouin rover in the story of the patriarchs. They are always on the move. From the start, however, where they are moving to is quite another matter all together. It appears that it is the journey more than the destination that spiritual direction is concerned with. In that respect, it is about caravanning together.

Therefore, what then, is spiritual direction presented as something directionless? Hardly. It is a missional activity that concerns itself with the journey into ever greater wholeness (sozo=salvation). It is the task of the spiritual director to listen carefully and sense when the story of salvation in any individual life is at a pivotal point. When is a new phase on the horizon? In dealing with simplicity and prayer, Guenther moves our attention to the transitory nature of this life as a motivation to simplify. We are all going down that same road.

In terms of a listening spiritual director and a movement onward, this aspect of my life and future is not far from me. Being in the throes of midlife as I am, I think that a proper listening to my story needs to hear the echoes of anxiety, and meaninglessness, and fear that realization often engenders. That is my pivotal point in many ways. I look back, question the worth of it all, and wonder what and how much lies ahead. This type of careful listening is at the heart of holy listening. We all need someone who can listen to us carefully and discover where that cutting edge of growth is for each of us today.

There can be no canned program of holy listening. Spiritual direction is always individual. It is always the unique story that we are all writing at any given time. For aFor many the great difficulty is right here. We cannot focus enough to listen meaningfully to another. We are just too preoccupied with our own agendas and concerns. As our minds drift, and our concerns move away from the setting, we may encounter serious problems. We might lose sight of the journey. Or, we might embellish what is said with our own undisciplined agendas. While a director will surely share his or her own journey from time to time, the focus must be on the one who has come seeking direction. This can be a well-neigh impossible task for some of us. We are just entirely too self absorbed.

Under the rubric of listening, it is helpful to consider Guenther’s notion of spiritual direction as a teaching event and of the spiritual director as teacher. This is very near to my heart. I am a professor, an education professor to be precise. I spend my days teaching pre-service teachers the intricacies of pedagogy. I am constantly reminding them there are two sides to teaching. There is that aspect of teaching which is rightly the domain of science. In this, I wish them their practice informed by research. There has been considerable research into best practice. Best practice might be defined as those practices that teachers engage in standing solidly on the bedrock of science. Best practice derives from meta-analyses of many studies- high quality studies. The conclusions are rather in the undeniable category. Few would disagree about such practices. Yet, for all of the textbooks on teaching, it seems that consistent, widely applicable evidence exists only for nine or ten practices. Of course, these practices are hugely important to teachers. They are well established and we ignore them at our peril.

Likewise, there appears to be a science to spiritual direction. The fact of such a book as Guenther’s on spiritual direction demonstrates that things having been learned over the years by trial and error are proven to possess wide application. The same may be said of prayer. In The Practice of Prayer (1998), Guenther provides information on methods, history, effectiveness, and so on. These things speak of science, of experimentation, of trial and error.

If the science is any good, it must be applicable. It must have application that transcends the one synthesizing the knowledge. If the science is worthwhile, it will bear the scrutiny of repeated testing and experimentation. If this science is useful, it should be able to contribute to a general theory of spiritual direction or prayer. That is indeed the case. Once again, the mere presence of books about prayer and spiritual direction indicate something of a universal nature is distillable.

However, I always tell my students there is another part to teaching. That part is pure art. It is not possible to ‘can it’, sell it, nor distill it. It cannot be set forth in ‘easy to follow’ steps. Here, we are in an entirely different domain. We are sloshing around in murky, mysterious, uncharted territory.

As a teacher educator, a teacher of pre-service teachers, I believe that I can teach the science to those who will apply themselves to learn. However, I cannot teach the art of the teacher. That seems to be something that one just ‘has’ or does not ‘have’. I cannot begin to count how many student teachers I have supervised that, finally, could not teach. They had excelled when I had them in my classes. They all showed promise. Nevertheless, the spark, the art, just was not there. Many have gone on to be teachers, principals, and superintendents. However, they never really had the art that engenders greatness. They lack the flow of creativity. The love, and hate and passion I might add, are missing. Art is not teachable. One may improve art-- if one already possesses it. It may be shaped, guided, and molded. Nevertheless, it is not something created. It is a gift.

I think that spiritual direction is like that. We can learn the science. We might get the highest grade on the test in Spiritual Direction 101 and still not work as effective directors. I think I might be in this category. I know lots about history and facts about spiritual formation. What I lack is that ‘something’ I find when I am talking with my spiritual director.

Guenther is right to make a distinction between spiritual direction and pastoral care and counseling. I am very good at those things. They are more directive, goal oriented, and often more short term. I do well at this because I am adept at pastoral psychology and truly care about folks. However, direction requires a perceptiveness I lack. It calls for a listening I cannot provide. It asks for a detachment (Guenther talks about this in some manner throughout) into which I cannot tap. I do not believe that all pastors are spiritual directors. I am aware that Peterson sees that as a main task of the pastor (see Working the Angles, 1987). I think his statements on this topic placed side by side with Guenther’s views on direction are very instructive at this point.

How? Simply by the way that the topic is approached. Guenther is much more in the tradition of the classical spiritual director. This is apparent when she cites so many examples from the classical forms of prayer in The Practice of Prayer (1998). Peterson seems to me to be speaking more of mentoring. At the heart of mentoring is friendship, respect, and mutual accountability (at least that is often the case). In the classic idea of direction, one must approach some relationship in ways that are reminiscent of asceticism. I do not see how anyone could really deny that Guenther is more in the tradition of the desert while Peterson is more in the tradition of a cup of coffee at Denny’s. My distinction may well be semantic, but it certainly works for me.

The art and science distinction loses something when it comes to prayer considered as something separated from direction. We all pray, in some manner. We see many types of prayers in the New Testament and maybe even more in the Old Testament. There is no real indication that effectiveness depends on the criteria of spiritual direction as stated here. Prayer is a discipline. As a discipline, it responds to scientific inquiry. However, it is also the desperate cry of the heart in a time of need. At those times, both art and science go ‘out the window’ and necessity says it all. God promises to hear. There has been far too much written in an attempt to make prayer into some sort of science. I think we can speak of the discipline of prayer in scientific terms. But the prayer of necessity? The prayer that is the cry of the heart? That prayer transcends any categories we may choose to apply to it.

It is clear when Guenther writes of prayer; she does so in the same vein (i.e. The science of prayer) that she applies to direction. The notion of the director as a teacher is a helpful one. In fact, I would venture to say that preaching is also an educational activity. In that respect, both spiritual direction and preaching are concerned with proclamation. They are concerned with spreading the good news of salvation, wholeness. One works through a proclamation of immediacy. The other works through discipline.

In The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992), the topic of transformation as a process is addressed using the overall framework of Alcoholics Anonymous. One might argue that such a departure from the Christian tradition brings an element into discussion here that is out of place. Still, there is a wide tradition of spirituality from the educative direction. In 1902, James (1902/1962) articulated the varieties of conversion experiences. While noting that many are not of the ‘evangelical’ type, James does effectively delineate an experience of conversion that is more of an educative nature. Certainly, even those conversions that are dramatic and direct, such as that of Augustine, often contain a long educative process.

Applied to the spiritual director, we catch a glimpse of a conversion of an ongoing nature. It is the task of the director to use the science of direction, applied artfully, to achieve the desired objective: The transformation of the person.

Perhaps there is no time when a director is necessary more than those times when we must pray through devastation and desperation. In those times when God is conspicuous in his absence, the director’s task is to remind the directee that God is not truly absence. When God seems to have us on hold, we need someone whom we can tell of our aloneness without fear of being overridden. By the simple act of listening, a spiritual director can validate our feelings. In that respect, the director must often be detached and able to separate her agenda from the direction session.

My director tells me that she long ago discovered that one must talk at the feeling level if spiritual direction is to be of much use. My wife and I were presenters with United Marriage Encounter for several years. One of the points we always try to make when dealing with couples is ‘feelings are not right or wrong; they just are’. Since almost all of us tend to attach morality to feelings, where the attachment doesn’t fit, instead of boldly confronting when needed about actions and decision, where morality does fit, I firmly believe most of us would make poor spiritual directors.

There is a sense in which a spiritual director often fulfills the role of confessor. That is necessary and proper. Guenther describes a director sufficiently dispassionate that s/he can take in the feelings that make us human. This includes the pleasant nice feelings (of course, that is not so because feelings are amoral), but also the ugly and the frightening (or so we view them). She mentions the need to avoid being shocked. This is difficult but necessary if we are to validate the directee. Of course, this is ‘easier said than done’.

When you get down to it, about everything discussed in this posting is far ‘easier said than done’. I certainly do not believe that the completion of a program in spiritual direction will likely create a spiritual director. It is hardly that simple.

Maybe Guenther said it all in the title of her book. Spiritual direction is holy listening. Like all holy activities it deserves due reverence. As such, it is high calling. I do not think that a soul is a trinket to be trifled with. Jesus placed supreme value on the one lost sheep—the one lost soul. A spiritual director’s calling is to seek and be sought. It is a missional, outreaching task. I think it is something we all need. Maybe most of us just do not know it. We need a director to come along side, disclosing of him/herself as appropriate, and join our journey is a great gift.

For many the great difficulty is right here. We cannot focus enough to listen meaningfully to another. We are just too preoccupied with our own agendas and concerns. As our minds drift, and our concerns move away from the setting, we may encounter serious problems. We might lose sight of the journey. Or, we might embellish what is said with our own undisciplined agendas. While a director will surely share his or her own journey from time to time, the focus must be on the one who has come seeking direction. This can be a well-neigh impossible task for some of us. We are just entirely too self absorbed.


Guenther, M. (1992). Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Boston: Cowley.

___________ (1998). The Practice of Prayer. Boston: Cowley.

James, W. (1902/1961). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier.

Kurtz, E. & Ketcham, K. (1992). The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. New York: Bantam.

Peterson, E. (1987). Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: Eerdsmans.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Fundamentalists Insist on Making Us All Righteous (no matter what we want!)

I wrote this some months back-- before the elections. Since I am "putting it in the que" for Nov. 7, and today is Oct. 31, I do not know who has won. It may seem a bit dated, but the major premise remains. One might view it as a bit of a retrospect...

Another election year. It is a time when our country has the opportunity to go in a different direction or stay on the same well-worn path. Too many years of neo-con philosophy. Too many years of the failed policies of George Bush. We have seen our nation led down the path to economic collapse. We have seen our country led into a war costing thousands of American lives and (by conservative estimates) tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives on the basis of sloppy intelligence at best and lies at worst. We have seen a lack of concern for the "common people" and tax breaks and economic advantage for the rich. We have seen the decline of America's public schools and the use of public funds to support private and religious schools.

A large part of the Republican base is made up of social conservatives. A large segment of social conservatives are found among the ranks of the Christian Right. The Christian Right is mainly comprised of fundamentalists and evangelicals. Therein lies much of the Republican base. The power of fundamentalism in our nation is real. As a voting block, evangelicals and fundamentalists are a force to be reckoned with. The Southern Baptist Convention alone represents nearly seventeen million members. Currently, members of fundamentalist denominations and churches outnumber those of the traditional mainline churches such as Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the Disciples of Christ. Liberal and moderate voters ignore the Christian Right to their peril.

Fundamentalists are, unfortunately and surprisingly, rather deceptive. They have tried such tricks as voting in the Democratic primaries, though the GOP is without a doubt the party of the righteous faithful. They vote in the Democratic race and support the candidate they think is least likely to win in November. Another deception is to push the emotion buttons related to gay marriage and abortion. While they do so, they are well aware (they must be) that many thousands innocent civilian lives are being lost in a war initiated and prosecuted by a Republican administration, the darling of the Christian Right. Where is the concern for life so vocally proclaimed, as is the case with abortion? Granted, the unborn are important, but what about the "already born?" Our righteous friends will fight to preserve traditional marriages and traditional families while those they support put forth policies that make it difficult for such families to make ends meet.

One must admit; some of what they have achieved is a stroke of genius. Why do they do it? Very simply, they must work to make America a "godly nation" (as if it ever was). Fundamentalists and evangelicals are compelled to see to it that we collectively walk the "sawdust trail." It is a matter of duty. They must save us. Further, they are the representatives of God to save a corrupt American society. That is their task. It is their understanding of the Great Commission. They are not satisfied to "Go and make disciples of all nations." They must make fundamentalist disciples. So, by hook or by crook, they must make us all righteous. That applies to politics as well.

Many, if not most, fundamentalist churches distribute "so-called" unbiased voter guides. These guides aim to show which candidates will support fundamentalist causes. This ranges from school board member (or maybe dog catcher) right on to the highest office in the land. This time though, it may backfire. The neo-cons and the Christian Right have had their way for eight years. It hasn't been a pretty sight. They have had their day and rather made a mess of things. In addition, I sincerely doubt they have succeeded in making many of us more moral. Fundamentalists cannot take no for an answer, but many Americans are tired of being lied to, bullied, and misled.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How I Left Fundamentalism-- Part 4

The last part of the story (that I'm telling here!)...

Done (almost) in a sentence

That led to a search. I began to investigate various denominations and their views of these things. I wrote dozens of letters, spent hours in the library, and read many books. I did not have to look far. I discovered the Mennonite Church held views concerning the Bible and non-violence similar to mine. That culminated in my awakening one Sunday morning and announcing to Irene that she did not have to come, but I was going to the Mennonite church down the road. She came, but reluctantly.

It was an easy transition because this Mennonite church decided to organize into small fellowship groups (termed “D” groups, or “discussion” groups), and it was largely Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal). We soon fit right in. We got very involved, and, after a time, I began to lead a small group. Then, the final event occurred. As I talked with the associate pastor one day, concerning something in the Bible, he announced he did not believe all of the Bible was historically, factually true. I heard my voice say, “Neither do I.” Then I was out. No longer was I an absolutist.

I wish that was the final happy conclusion to the story, but as we have discovered, leaving is hard. I enrolled in seminary. There I learned to question. I did question. I did think. Then I would get scared. A voice would say, “You’re not supposed to question.” Again and again, I had to remind myself I was no longer an absolutist. I had “been there and done that,” and I knew it no longer worked for me.

I served as pastor sharing my time between a Mennonite Church and a Church of the Brethren congregation (also a peace church) while attending seminary. However, I missed the closeness of the subculture. I started searching for that sense of camaraderie I shared as an absolutist. I aligned myself with the Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal) Movement in the Church of the Brethren but soon found them too absolutist for my liking. After my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, I began my full-time pastorate in Virginia; I affiliated with a conservative group trying to get the Brethren back on a path they thought they had forsaken. To me, that was the path of peace and community. However, it did not work. I could not accept the hellfire view of things anymore.

Frustrated, I resigned my ordination after a few years. There was anything wrong with the Brethren. The Church of the Brethren is a superb denomination with a long and honorable history. I was simply a victim of my absolutist past. I began looking for Christians who practiced community. I missed that close-knit subculture so much at times that it hurt. In the midst of our deciding to leave the Brethren, Irene and I visited with the Bruderhof community, an Anabaptist, peace oriented, communal denomination that holds all property in common. Irene found them too rigid and regimented in their lifestyles.

After a time I (we) joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I stayed with it for ten years. I even taught in the SDA school system, as did Irene. Still, the literal approach to the Bible kept smacking me in the face. (This is not to say anything negative about individual SDA’s. I must say virtually all my close Adventist friends are true free thinkers) They were non-combatants, but they rarely said anything concerning non-violence. In addition, I was back to the flat Bible. It just was not going to work for me.

For a bit, we attended an evangelical mega-church. The music was great, but they lacked the subculture of the Adventists. I began to get tired. I had lost the faith of absolutism. I did not miss the wackiness I experienced as a result of the subculture’s beliefs. I missed the closeness I experienced in the subculture (this is something most folks who attend mainline churches—and I do—cannot really understand). All of this running and changing went on for almost fifteen years. Eventually. I concluded the subculture was somehow a product of the absolutist version of conservatism. Finally, I just quit searching. I decided to learn to live without that closeness. It was too costly.

I stopped running and decided to start helping. I again accepted a pastorate at a small church, greatly needing leadership for its continued existence. Theology was not much of a concern to me. As long as I did not have to be certain of all the answers, I thought I could make this work. My association with the church began when a clergy friend convinced me that, no matter what my history, I had the training and concern to help. The church was near my home and the college where I teach. I stayed at the church for a number of years.

It has been about ten years since I quit running. I may have renounced absolutism twenty-seven years ago with one simple sentence. Nevertheless, I have discovered that it is hard to leave. It took a toll on my wife. It took a toll on my kids. It took a toll on me. Freedom is the prize, but the cost is high.

Several themes common to "quitters" appear in my story. Please be certain to note how, even after I left, I, indeed, experienced relapses. I continued to look for the community the subculture provided. I have never found anything resembling it, and I now wonder if such dependency is really a good thing after all. Still, my journey makes one thing clear. Leaving is a long process. It goes on and on. Some days, after all these years, I think I am still in the process of leaving. I still want order and predictability in my world. I must always remind myself that is not the nature of reality.