Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two Resounding Chords

This is interesting to me. Although I don’t know enough musicology to understand all the terminology, I found this site concerning the famous opening bars of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, one of the most influential chords in music but open to analysis.

Until recently, I hadn’t realized that the chord which begins the Beatles’ song, “A Hard Day’s Night,” had also been subject to debate and analysis!

I’ve known that song since I was seven years old! You learn something every day. Like the Tristan chord, the "Hard Day's Night" chord is difficult to identify.

Both, however, have become greater than their original context. This quote from the first website applies to that Beatles’ chord, one of the most famous in rock and roll, “[I]n the words of Robert Erickson (1975, p.18), ‘among other things, [the chord is] an identifiable sound, an entity beyond its functional qualities in a tonal organization.’"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Feeble, Eager Steps on the Path

Back in my 4/19/09 entry about inner peace, I mentioned some musical pieces that depict longing and striving. Today I'm thinking similarly about two other pieces.

I was listening today to the new CD of Arvo Pärt's music, "In Principio," on the ECM Records label. I loved "Cecilia, vergine romana" and also "Mein Weg" ("my path"). The liner notes describe the latter piece: "The title was inspired by a short poem from 'Livre des Questions', the magnum opus of the poet Edmond Jabès ... My path has long hours,/jolts and pains./My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky./Mine or thine... The image of life's portentous sea-troughs seems to have found an echo in the work's compositional fabric with its constant, dynamically differentiated upward and downward motion."

I love that! Aren't the paths of life--including the spiritual path--filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back? I think of Psalm 121, where the poet expresses concern about the journey and its hazards, but the Lord is God of our journeys.

I made a mental, thematic connection between Pärt's minimalistic piece from 1989 and a different kind of piece from 1724. My daughter's choir used to perform Bach's "Wir eilen mit schwachen" from Cantata 78, "Jesu, der du meine Seele."

Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten, O Jesu, o Meister, zu helfen zu dir! Du suchest die Kranken und Irrenden treulich. Ach, höre, wie wir die Stimme erheben, um Hilfe zu bitten! Es sei uns dein gnädiges Antlitz erfreulich!

We hasten with feeble, yet eager footsteps, Oh Jesus, Oh Master, to seek after your help! You tirelessly seek out the sick and those who have gone astray. Oh, hear us, as we, our voices raised, pray for your help! May your merciful countenance be gracious unto us!

The choir director noted that the melody is springy, to connote eagerness, but the continuo plods, connoting feeble steps that require divine help.

There is always room for effective challenging of people's Christian walk. On the other hand, we should accept the reality of "jolts and pains, peaks and sea-troughs" as necessary and inevitable aspects of spiritual growth. Accepting that reality, we can shift the focus from our own progress to God's tireless work and, paradoxically, thereby make better progress.

Shut Up, Your Heart is Showing

Browsing the magazines at Barnes and Noble, I noticed that the Oct-Nov 2009 issue of the magazine Tathaastu featured an article “What Does Your Tongue Tell You?” I glanced at the article and realized the topic was the contours of the physical tongue.

I had in mind the metaphorical meaning of “tongue” as speech. This topic worries me to death. I tend to be a ‘venter’ at home (not in public), in the sense of articulating my inner feelings at home and trying to deal with frustrations, old hurts, and so on. This kind of thing can be psychologically healthy, but you can get into the habit of venting, so that you’re not dealing with your difficult feelings anymore and have just become grouchy and intolerant. You have to take care not to encourage and cultivate the negative things in your heart. The things you say, whether in private or public, do reflect your soul!

Some well-known verses address the connection of speech and heart/soul.

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles (Matt. 15:18).

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. …If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless (James 1:19-26).

Worthless religion! Oh my gosh, how many people do you know whose religion is worthless by James' criteria? How is your own religion?

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:1-12).

We have a wonderful gift of discernment about the state of our souls! All we have to do is listen to ourselves for a while! Do we like what we hear? Since our speech reflects the content of our hearts, do we conform to James’ vision of God’s will for us?

Fortunately, we are saved by grace and not our own efforts. Recognizing this, we can seek the Lord's help every day, for as long as we need.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Family Heirloom from Otego Township

On my office wall is a framed auction announcement that will be 101 years old next week.

Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: Four Head of Horses consisting of 3 Good Work Horses and 1 Good 2-Year-Old Colt. 2 Good Dairy Cows and 1 Spring Calf. 13 Thirteen Head of Hogs 13 [sic] Weighing from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder. 1 McCormack Mow-Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture. Terms of Sale. All sums of $5.00 and under, Cash in hand. Sums over $5.00 a credit of 12 mouths will be given. Purchaser to give note with approved security before property is removed. Notes to draw 7 per cent. Interest from date if not paid when due. A discount of 5 per cent. Will be allowed for Cash on sums over $5.00. Sale to commence at 10 o’clock a.m. Farm for rent on day of sale. John Crawford. W. H. Sawrey, Auctioneer. Paul Crawford, Clerk

John was my mother’s paternal grandfather (Paul Crawford was John’s brother, and John‘s wife Susan was the granddaughter of Comfort Williams, about whom I wrote a few entries ago.) The family lived along the road that today connects U.S. 40 with Illinois 185, two or three miles north of the scene on my blog. As I recall the story, John and Susan’s second child Marvin was ill of tuberculosis and the family planned to move to Texas to assist him. I know that Marvin died in 1909, however, so I don’t know how these sad events, including the sale of all this property, turned out. I do know that John lived until 1927 and his wife Susan until 1926. Their personal papers (which I have, still kept in a 1920s oatmeal box) indicates that the couple moved back to the Brownstown area and started again. Even though I loved family history as a kid, I now think of more questions I would’ve asked my great-aunts about their parents, my grandfather having died before I was born.

Last year I forgot to note the 100th anniversary of the sale, but I will remember the day this time---and next week, October 29th is also on Thursday. Whenever I’m back in Fayette County, I nearly always drive out to Otego Township and pass by the small residence along the road, pointed out to me as the Crawfords’ long-ago farm. Though the framed announcement is sad, it gives me a happy sense of belonging to a family history, as do those Otego visits.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


My last entry was water-related and this one is, too, although this one's metaphorical.

I’ve been reading When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998). I’m intrigued by his idea of “floating.” Learning to float on water is surprisingly difficult, even though all we have to do is relax. We’re afraid of sinking and afraid of losing control. But when we can relax, floating is fairly easy. “The whole experience of the dark night [of the soul] or the cloud of unknowing appears to be the Lord’s way of trying to make floaters out of swimmers. He, it seems, definitely wishes us to float. He wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the flow of this tide” (pp. 144-145). God doesn’t want us to float aimlessly, but rather by asking us to trust him and "relax", he can lead us effectively.

As I read this, I thought of Hebrews 2:1. In that letter, the author warns people about abandoning their newly-found Christian faith, but he is also concerned with people drifting away from faith, like an unsecured boat. “Drifting” in this sense is different from the “floating” which Fr. Green intends. You drift when you’re careless about your faith and don’t maintain your side of your relationship with God. “Floating” is a serious and deliberate act of surrender, especially in times of distress and uncertainty.

In turn, I thought of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

I worry that we only truly embrace the part of that prayer that reads, “put me to doing.” Our congregations have become so structured like top-down businesses that must grow; judicatory officials expect results from pastors or the latter are deemed ineffective; we’d never believe the Spirit wants us to be empty and “laid aside” for a season.

But what if the Holy Spirit wished for us, in both our personal and congregational lives, to trust that the unproductive times, and even the dark nights of the soul, are ways by which God leads us? We might discover that too much "doing" is simply our own efforts to control God's guidance: Fr. Green calls this "swimming" instead of "floating."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Comfort of a Stream

We are renting our house for a year. The house has pretty landscaping, among which is a configuration of stones that form a stream, over which the wooden front walkway passes. We've gotten a lot of rain this fall, this decorative stream has moved a lot of water from the gutter downspouts to the lawn.

This house’s yard has several aspects that I would’ve loved as a kid, including the overhanging branches of sheltering trees that form shaded spaces large enough to hide in. I would’ve promptly turned those spaces into a “club house.” But I would’ve spent hours splashing in this stream and littering it with plastic boats and toy figurines.

My childhood home lay just three houses away from a park with a terrific stream, the “town branch.” My friends and I spent many summer days along that stream. We'd put pieces of bacon on safety pins attached to string, and we’d catch “crawdads” that way. I wish we would’ve let them go but we carried them home in a plastic container, and of course they didn’t survive. A tree had broken and fallen over the stream, but the tree had not died, and so it was a fine place on which to climb. My mother had survived typhoid fever as a girl; I’d been warned never to drink any water other than from a tap. So I was never tempted to sip from the stream as I, in imagination, crossed the West on my horse.

Another fine stream, Sand Creek, flowed upon a portion of my grandma’s property, not far from the photo that introduces this blog. I visited Sand Creek less often but thought it might even be finer than the town branch, more wild and remote. It seemed to me the perfect woodland waterway, a place where pioneers had lived. Even as an adult, when I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my mind “used” Sand Creek to visualize Dillard’s Virginia stream.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (8/22/09) about the Kaskaskia River on which my hometown was founded. These streams eventually emptied into the Kaskaskia. I was justifiably afraid of the rapidly-flowing river and loved it from safe distances. Although you could technically drown in a stream, too, a small waterway was manageable. A stream was a little-kid-sized river; a kid didn't need more water than that, because the imagination could turn it into a mighty waterway for innumerable adventures.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stay Out of Box 5

My wife and daughter and I went to see “Phantom of the Opera” at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis last Saturday night.

It’s always an enjoyable show, and heartbreaking at the end. You’d need a stony heart not to be affected by the Phantom’s disappointment and despair.

I’m no music critic but there are awkward things in “Phantom” that always bother me. I heard the musical for the first time on cassettes and thought that maybe these awkward things were due to the removal of more theatrical aspects of the show from the recording, but that’s not the case.

“Phantom’s” title number is more “rock and roll” than anything else in the show, except the overture on which it’s based. I read somewhere that it was the first number written, but the subsequent show became more operatic. Also, the number “Think of Me” is supposed to be in an aria in the opera “Hannibal” but is completely different style than the other parts of the opera that we’ve heard; similarly “Point of No Return,” supposedly a duet from the Phantom’s otherwise modernistic “Don Juan Triumphant.” The fact that the musical contains operas requires some stylistic contrasts that are never quite pulled off.

The several numbers sung by the managers feature lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, who was an original lyricist but Lloyd Webber wanted less clever and more romantic lyrics. To me, the excellence of his lyrics stand out from the rest of the musical. Also, the whole first-act sequence from Carlotta storming out of the “Hannibal” rehearsals, to the first appearance of the Phantom in Christine’s mirror, seems clunky to me. For instance, did Raoul only recognize Christine when she sang “Think of Me” in the opera---a third act number?

Worst of all, there is no emotional build-up to the chandelier crash that ends Act 1. The crash is kind of squeezed-in among the remaining notes, after the Phantom has sworn revenge. The movie does the crash much better by placing it in Act 2.

Some of these things reflect the stages through which the composition of “Phantom” passed. But rather than stylistic contrasts that would enrich the show, they stand out (to me anyway) as Lloyd Webber’s failures to smooth out the show’s composition stages.

There.... now I feel better! Just a few mild complaints.

I hope my daughter doesn’t read this. She loves the show and has seen the movie several times and also several stage shows. The Fox production was certainly the best acted we've seen over the years; the Phantom was truly alluring and terrifying, and the other principles were excellent actors, too. I’m sure we’ll continue to see productions of the show into the indefinite future, until it stops touring like the wonderful Les Miz.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Don't Blame Science! Part 2

A few more thoughts concerning science and religion. I’ve written a yet-to-be-published book about the Bible, and some of these thoughts derive from that project. My aim of these thoughts is to give assurance and some ideas to people who struggle with the tension between religious belief and scientific discoveries, notably evolutionary theory.

People who worry about the contradiction between science and the Bible usually focus upon Genesis 1. But actually the Bible has numerous “unscientific” words about the nature of reality. Exodus 20:4, for instance, depicts a three-tiered cosmos; Ps. 24:2 and Ps. 136:6 depicts the earth as founded upon seas; 2 Samuel 22:8 says that the earth is set upon foundations; 1 Samuel 2:8 talk about the pillars on which the earth is set. Leviticus 11:13 and 19 lists bats among kinds of birds. Must we assume all these images are literal truth? If we defend them as metaphorical, well … we’ve immediately acknowledged that the Bible contains passages that are not literal but metaphorical and poetic truth.

Scoffers at biblical truth would zero in passages such as these in order to discredit religious belief. But religious people, too, must defend the truth of the scriptures in spite of the ancient world view that the Bible reflects.

Both defenders of biblical inerrancy and scoffers at biblical truth make a similar mistake in reasoning: if the Bible has errors, then the whole Bible is discredited. But God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2) and the whole Bible is true.

That is a false choice. We don’t typically make such distinctions. For instance, I made an unintentional error in a history book that I wrote back in the 1980s. I made an informed conclusion but new information emerged later. I made the mistake because my human knowledge is incomplete, but that doesn’t mean my whole book was a lie, or that I’m a liar, or that I need to explain my error through artificial arguments.

The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that we shouldn‘t confuse error in the sense of incorrect knowledge, and error in the sense of deception and sin. Limited as they were by their historical and cultural circumstances, the biblical authors has far less knowledge of science than we do. But we cannot thereby call them "liars" or deny that the Holy Spirit inspired them. As Berkouwer notes, when the definition of “error” is so formalized, “the relationship of the organic, God-breathed character to the organic unity and scope of the total testimony of Scripture is almost totally ignored.” [1]

Berkouwer, whom I would characterize as a conservative and very biblically-based Calvinist theologian, writes that we can safely recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers. Therefore, when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we shouldn’t worry that we’re “selling out” the Bible to science when we recognize the Bible’s ancient cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible wholly false if the scientific discoveries do not conform to biblical details. What is needed, he believes, is a “naturalness” on our parts to witness to the reliability and authority of the Bible in its overall purpose as a God-breathed witness to God—not a science book.

Berkouwer cautions that ideas of biblical inerrancy shouldn’t be ridiculed, only that its application be examined so that the sincere desire to uphold scriptural authority should not damage that authority rather than advancing it.

1. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1975), pp. 181-183 (quote on p. 182).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't Blame Science! Part 1

Recently I read a news story from a Midwestern community. The high school band had designed tee shirts that featured an image of a primate moving through stages until it becomes human: that famous illustration of evolutionary development. Each figure held a brass instrument. It seemed a clever way to encourage band spirit for their fall program. The tee shirts were banned, however, because of parents’ complaints that the shirts promoted evolution. The article reported that an assistant superintendent said that the school district must remain neutral about religion [1]

I'm religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think a bit about the issues involved. The school official and the complaining parents apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief.

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, ais that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that "God created the heavens and the earth."

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students--and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics--bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion--a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith's words shed light upon some the issues raised by the critics of the band tee shirts. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public. (In fact, the tee shirts don't even represent current science, which no longer posits such a linear progress of species development.)

I'll touch on a few thoughts about Bible interpretation within the next few days.


Monday, October 5, 2009

A Pioneer Woman's Kinfolk Chat Online and Have Ice Cream

When I was a little boy, my grandmother, parents, and I traveled out in the countryside to the Pilcher Cemetery, our family graveyard just off Four Mile Prairie in rural Brownstown, Illinois (see my 4/11 and 5/19/09 entries). As the grownups decorated graves family members, I walked back to the interesting old section and read the inscriptions. One gravestone reads "SACRED to the Memory of Comfort Williams Who Died March 30, 1847 Aged 54 Years." I knew that the large Williams family were relatives but did not know the connection of this person until I started to pursue genealogy during my junior high and high school years. Turns out, Comfort Williams is my great-great-great-grandmother.

While pursuing genealogy, I learned that about twenty direct ancestors are buried in the Pilcher Cemetery. Still fairly young at the time, I fanced that, if I happened to be at the cemetery when the Lord returned, I'd be on hand to greet my forebearers as they rose with transformed, spiritual bodies as promised in 1 Cor. 15.

A Williams cousin gave me some amazing information. Comfort's family were buried together in Obetz, Ohio: her husband, Josiah Williams (1786-1826), sister Mary (who married Josiah's brother George), and Comfort's parents, John and Margaret Weatherington. Wow! What a genealogical windfall!

Sometime during the mid-1970s I begged my parents (who still didn't let me drive very far) into visiting the small town outside Columbus, about 230 miles from my hometown. I was thrilled to stand at these graves. The first was a bronze marker that read, "Erected to the Memory of John Weatherington, Born June 23, 1755, Died in the Year 1831 *** Margaret Weatherington, Consort of John, Born Oct 23, 1759, Died Sept. 29, 1828." A relative had replaced the original tombstones with this marker. Next to it was a large slab that marked the graves of George and Mary, and next to it was a bronze marker for that couple. To the right is an unmarked grave, and then the stone of a relative named Perry Williams. The unmarked grave is probably that of Josiah. My contact said that he, too, was supposed to have had a bronze marker but she did not know why he did not.

I think sometimes about Comfort's life. She was 33 when her husband died, leaving her with five children. What did she do? By the middle of the 1830s, her parents, sister, and brother-in-law were also buried there in Obetz. Did she sense that she no longer had reason to stay in Ohio? Sometime around 1840, according to family tradition, she came to Illinois with her children and settled in the Four Mile Prairie area. She must've traveled the old National Road. Again: how did she manage? When she died, her son Josiah, my great-great-grandfather, was away in the Mexican War. One of her daughters attended to her in her last days.

I stopped by Obetz in August while traveling back from my daughter's college. I'd visited the place three or four other times since first coming here about 35 years ago. The cemetery is a large and pretty churchyard at the outskirts of the village. I can only imagine how beautiful were the virgin woodlands and prairie in that area when Josiah died in 1826, how different the scene would have looked compared to today's small-town scene. I was a couple days too early for Obetz's Zucchini Festival.
Now that we've moved to St. Louis, I'm close to some local cousins who are also descended from this side of the family. A few weeks ago a cousin-couple here in town wrote me through Facebook and invited my wife Beth and me to an evening church event with them and another cousin-couple. Afterward we all went to Steak 'n' Shake and chatted. The usual lighthearted family conversation:

"I'm going to order chili and a sundae."
"Are you getting chili on your sundae?"
"Waiter, she wants chili on her milk shake!"
"I hope you took your Lipitor."
"I did! Do you take that stuff?"
"Not Lipitor, but other kinds."
"Heather's eighth anniversary is next week. They have two little boys now!"
"When you see the waiter, tell him I want more water."
"He's over there but he hasn't looked this way for a while."
"I like the sandwiches here and also at the White Castle down the street."
"I haven't eaten there yet, but I've eaten at the one up the street from us."
"You ate there and you're still alive? I'm impressed!"

One of the things I've missed by leading a peripatetic life is losing touch with cousins. Some of us exchange Christmas cards, but when I was a boy, several cousin families got together each summer for a reunion, and sometimes more frequently. But no one in the family has organized a reunion for several years, and when get-togethers did happen I was living too far away to attend.

Say what you will about online networking sites, but thanks to Facebook I've been able to reconnect not only with old friends but also with several cousins with whom I hadn't seen or contacted for ages! We can chat a bit, offer encouraging words, and stay connected.

It's cliche to say, but what would Comfort have thought about the ability of her descendants to communicate? When she died in 1847, communication and travel were still pretty much identical; telegraphy was in its earliest days and limited to a few areas.

Churches Want Pastors Who Have Great Skills, Part 2

I was just discussing the “equipper” style of church leadership which addresses more aspects of a congregation than just its programmatic ministry. This style aims at effecting positive change to a church.

“Change agency” is also a major theme in the professional literature. Shawchuck and Heuser, whose book I cited in the last entry, write that “The only congregations that will thrive in the coming decades will be those whose leaders have learned to respond to change, not resist or ignore it” (p. 167, authors’ emphasis).

But there are pitfalls to change. Those authors note that change cannot happen without a satisfactory leadership team in the pastoral staff, governing board, or groups of lay leaders, and the pastor has a responsibility to work with staff and boards to create reciprocal accountability and excellent communication. Once I chatted with a pastor (someone I knew casually) who was frustrated that he had no associate pastor at the moment. “I’m a control freak, Paul,” he said cheerfully, “I like to know what’s going on.” I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s why you don’t have an associate pastor!” Pastors don’t always take the time to develop an excellent staff, and instead rely upon them in a very top-down way. But change happens best when the overall leadership functions well as a group.

More broadly: change agency is difficult! I could imagine a pastor, faithful in her or his desire to serve a congregation, who treads into parish "landmines" just because---well, landmines aren’t visible till it’s too late. James O’Toole offers no fewer than 33 hypotheses to account for resistance to change. Many of them can be summed up by the group’s collective assumptions and their ability to suppress or deny information that leads to change. [1] An older leadership model, Total Quality Management, is one which is helpful for dealing with resistance to change. [2]

I become discouraged when pastors overuse a scolding style in their preaching and communication. There is definitely a large place in parish life for challenging people; a sizable portion of Paul’s letters, after all, are gentle or forceful reminders to live the Gospel. But to me, if a pastor overuses confrontation, he or she falls into the trap of trying to force change through criticism of people’s failings--whatever those failings may be, such as not contributing sufficiently or not volunteering.

I like O’Toole’s description of the “feminine” style of leadership which “is more effective in modern organizations in which everyone’s best efforts are needed--that is, in any organization that requires employee initiative, self-motivation, innovation, and willingness to take the extra step to serve customers or to meet competitive changes” Importantly, ‘feminine’ leadership does not mean weak leadership--nor does it mean that only women can and do practice it (p. 139). As examples, he cites leadership authorities like W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters, James MacGregor Burns, as well as leaders such as Dr. King, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as examples.

If a pastor too frequently challenges or scolds people, s/he risks ignoring people’s faith stories. But people’s stories are significant for both personal and congregational identity. Howard Gardner writes that “Leaders achieve their effectiveness through the stories they relate,” that is, people’s perspectives and visions related to one’s identity. Stories are important because “those leaders who presume to bring about major alterations across a significant population must in some way help their audience members think through who they are” (p. 62) [3].

Thus--to pick up on my earlier points--the leadership skill of the pastor is more than just issues of power, group dynamics, and charisma but also has to do with their interactions with others and their abilities to communicate her own story in a compelling way to shape the stories and identity of the congregation.

One of the enormous problems I see in effective pastoral leadership today is the need for congregations to be in good financial shape. A recent article, “Religious Life Won't Be the Same After Downturn” by Rachel Zoll of AP, discusses the major financial needs facing churches and denominations today. [4] Unfortunately, congregational change takes time and patience, with no guarantee of success, and the pace of change that a particular congregation requires may be slower than the congregation’s revenue needs.

All the more reason to affirm that any congregational leader, clergy or lay, must finally depend not upon skills but upon God's grace and help!

At the moment, I’m updating some of my research concerning parish leadership after I’ve focused on other topics for the past few years. Is the systems approach still as apropos and potential-filled as it has seemed to me? How are contemporary pastors finding the dilemmas of parish leadership now that, for instance, churches and denominations are still struggling, perhaps even more than the 1990s, with dwindling numbers and revenue? Among the books I'm currently reading is an excellent study by Dan R. Dick, Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2007).

[1] James O’Toole, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom. San Francisco: Josses-Bass, Inc., 1995.

[2] Although the idea of “quality” wasn’t really new by the time of Ezra Earl Jones’ Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1993), Jones expands its implications to show how the goal of quality can bring about positive change in churches.

[3] Howard Gardner, with the collaboration of Emma Laskin, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books, 1995.


Churches Want Pastors Who Have Great Skills, Part 1

Please forgive the Napoleon Dynamite reference there. Hopefully, unlike Napoleon’s sorrowful appraisal of his desirability to girls, churches don’t want pastors with nunchuck skills and computer hacking skills.

I’ve been looking over some of my research about church leadership, with the aim of updating it this fall. Several years ago I was grateful and privileged to receive a Religious Leaders grant from the Louisville Seminary; I wanted to address several questions about good approaches to parish work, and especially to disseminate my discoveries in a way that could help other pastors. [1]

Church leadership can be very difficult--duh. On one hand, it is a human effort in which skill, experience, resourcefulness, persuasion, and an avoidance of major missteps are crucial. A pastor can be an excellent preacher, leader, care-giver, and pray-er, but if s/he steps on the wrong toes, or makes an unintentional leadership mistake, s/he may have some big problems to address.

And yet… none of us would want to be Pelagian and place human efforts on at a strong level along with God’s grace; God’s grace is the most important thing of all, that which makes our service possible! As the joke goes, the Apostle Paul’s resume would be declined by most search committees: Paul wasn’t an impressive speaker, he had a repellant illness, he could alienate people, and he had done time! Many churches would not tolerate such serious liabilities in their pastors, but obviously Paul’s limitations didn’t matter because God used him mightily. Upholding God’s providence for the pastoral role while acknowledge the importance of human skills and efforts can be a tricky balance.

One potential solution that I found was the insight that pastoral leadership is based on one’s theology. I was pleased when I discovered, for instance, Kennon Callahan’s distinguishing of models of pastoral leadership: the top-down-thinking boss, the manager, the (passive) enabler, and the apocalyptic inspirer. Many of us have known (or been) pastors who are one of these types. But actually, says Callahan, these types are all based on a weak theology! You could be, or seem to be, a strong leader if you fit some of these types. But in the long run, pastor leadership which is "tough," "demanding," and “hierarchical” is actually ineffective! Instead, a sound theology of ministry is inclusive, dynamic, and missional, and good leadership results from this theologically-strong basis. [2]

Pastors lead best when they can help people (whether staff or laity) grow to their potential. For a time in the 1990s, the “equipper” style of pastoral leadership was popular in some of the professional leadership. Perhaps it still is. The problem with this style is that it may be mistaken for weak leadership. Nevertheless, I found good books by Stevens and Collins [3], and Shawchuck and Heuser, which describe a “systems approach” to equipping a congregation, wherein the pastor shifts attention from specific program tasks to the strengths, peculiarities, traditions, power structures, and potentials of the congregation. [4]

Let me continue in the next entry, so this one doesn’t become too long…

[1] Some of this and the next entry is based on my review essay, “Leadership, Change, and the Parish,” in the now-defunct Quarterly Review, Summer 1996, pp. 203-219, which contains a long set of endnotes citing numerous books on this subject. I also wrote on parish leadership issues in chapter 5, “Church Places” in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006). These writings were based on my Louisville Institute grant work.

[2] Kennon L. Callahan, Effective Church Leadership: Building on the Twelve Keys. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

[3] R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Systems Approach to Congregational Leadership. New York: The Alban Institute, 1993.

[4] Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser, Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Those Sons of Bitches Think I'm Stupid!"

… So declared a groundskeeper who had “caught” me on my seminary campus, back in the early 1980s. He was expressing frustration with his superiors.

You know what I mean about being “caught” by certain people who love to talk. If you happen to encounter them amid your daily comings and goings, you might as well mentally devote yourself to five or ten minutes of monologue. There's a fellow who works at a filling station near my home who's like that. I’ve overheard him vent about unions, health care, the St. Louis Cardinals, and other topics as he talks to customers attempting to fill up.

My groundskeeper acquaintance was Al. If I ever knew his last name, I’ve forgotten it. Jean Shepherd writes humorously that certain authoritative people in the world have to-the-point names like Al or Mike: “He’s a born Al. And little Al, peering out of his crib with an embryonic smoky gaze of disdain, is launched into the world fully prepared to deal with the lesser fry.” [1] This fellow leaned on his rake and looked similarly at the world, although his intimidating gaze also had a distant element, like he was daydreaming about pleasant things beyond work.

I enjoyed chatting with him.... listening to him. He seemed to find me friendly. I think I told him some things about my family and background. I noticed that he cornered other students, too. One of my friends, now a distinguished biblical scholar, gave him a listening ear on several occasions.

One day Al showed me a picture of his wife. He watched my face and was pleased that I thought she was very pretty. He knew I was sincere not because of my words but my expression. He was clearly proud of his wife and proud to be married to a beautiful woman.

Eventually, I didn't see Al around my school anymore. As I drove back to campus from an errand one day, I noticed he was working at another of the university campuses. Had the "SOBs" transfered him? I assume so. I’m estimating that he was in his forties at the time, so he’d now be in his late sixties or thereabouts, if he's still with us.

I thought of him the other day when one of my BFFs sent me an inspirational email, the kind that make the online rounds. This message was “Five lessons about the way we treat people.” Among the lessons was the story of a conscientious student who was doing well on a pop quiz until s/he came to the question, “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?” The student didn’t know the answer. Another student asked if that question would count toward their grade. The professor said, Yes! "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say 'hello.'"

I agree! That’s why I gave Thomas the janitor some Christmas candy last year, and also a baby gift for Katie the barista, and I said goodbye to Mary and John the grocery cashiers when my family and I moved last summer.

Of course, I’ve missed learning the names and stories of many folk over the years. But I do worry, quite seriously, that God will ask us similar questions when we stand before the Throne: “Did you give time to that man who was upset about his job? … Do you know the cleaning lady’s name?” (Matt. 25:31-46).
1. Jean Shepherd, “The Great Chicken-Clawed Chooser,” The Ferrari in the Bedroom (New York: Doubleday, 1987), p. 159.

Christian Love, Part 2

I’ve been reading the latest issue of Parabola (Fall 2009), and an article about Sufism, “When the Fruit is Consumed by God: An Interview with Sheikha Fariha” (pp. 74-81). In the introduction, the interviewer notes that he was looking for the sheikh of a local Sufi order when he stopped by a recommended pizza parlor with a friendly owner. As it turned out, the sheikh of the order was the man who made the pizza there. Among other interesting topics, the article connected the Sufis' longing for God and their service in the world.

I like to read about other religions partly because I start mulling about aspects of my own faith. In this case, I thought about the way we Christians love God.

Loving God, like loving another person, isn't always a happy honeymoon. Sheikha Fariha, for instance, discussed the need for a guide to help a Sufi seeker continue on the path. John Wesley is the well-known founder of the Methodist movement, and in 1766, when he was 63, he wrote the following candid thoughts to his brother Charles. The brackets indicate places where historian Richard Heitzenrater translates Wesley’s Greek terms.

"In one of my last, I was saying I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple, one of the [God-fearers]. And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward or backward! Surely there never was such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other [evidence] of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal." [1]

What a remarkable admission! This is nearly thirty years after Wesley’s famous experience of the “warmed heart” which had been such a profound event for his Christian pilgrimage, and many years into his overall ministry. As Heitzenrater notes, other people had told him similar things. Was Wesley a fraud, or was he trusting God amid his own limitations?

Of course we love God with our emotional feelings, but feelings are notoriously changeable and inaccurate. I remember times in my life, for instance, when I felt very lonely and believed I was not a good person. Looking back, I think: what about all the people who loved me? Were they irrelevant? I wouldn’t have thought them irrelevant, but my sad feelings were so strong. Of course, I thought God didn’t think much of me, either--what a “pitiful” kind of spirituality, completely different from the liberating, empowering Gospel! I had the love of God but I didn't feel it.

Because of our feelings, we can also feel condemned by God when, in fact, we are not. I love this Martin Luther quote: “Troubled consciences are like geese. When hawks pursue them, they try to escape by flying, though they could do it better by running. On the other hand, when the wolves threaten them, they try to escape by running, though they could do it safely by flying. So when their consciences are oppressed, men run first here, then there; they try first this, then that work … the one true and sure way of healing the conscience is what David [in Psalm 51:8] calls “sprinkling,” by which the Word [that is, the free justification of sinners through God’s grace alone, not our good deeds] is heard and received.” [2] We need to hold to God’s promises in God’s word when our feelings and faith aren’t “meshing” very well. (The converse is also true: we could feel very smug in our faith but actually be drifting from God).

Unfortunately, I also associate the love of God (in any religion) with an touchy or angry defensiveness when one’s religion seems persecuted. I’ve felt frustrated when friends were up in arms about a political issue which, to them, makes them feel angry and persecuted in their faith. Somehow, a fervent love of God translates into (often knee-jerk) political outrage which, to me anyway, never sounds very loving. In this case, a person might feel emotionally filled with God's love but also filled with some very negative feelings.

Loving God is indivisible with loving others, including people whom we might otherwise despise. Oops! That makes love of God a much more difficult prospect than having loving emotional feelings toward God. But the prospect of loving others can also give us an excellent guide to our progress in loving God.

Read Romans 12:9-21. Although the Greek biblical word agape is well-known and means a Christian kind of love, I actually prefer the Hebrew word hesed, which can be translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.“ “Love” is easy to say and to declare, but loving-kindness (hesed) implies something active. This Romans passage describes so well aspects of an active, self-giving love: you treat your persecutors with kindness and benevolence, you try to abandon your feelings of pride and stubbornness, you refrain from cultivating your inner, vengeful feelings and from taking revenge, you work together with people without competing for praise and credit.

These are difficult things, emotionally and practically. Haven’t you met Christians who had a “don’t mess with me” approach to life? Haven't you met Christians who were gossips (or you spread gossip, too)? It's difficult to bring negative feelings and habits in line with God's love. We'd rather not pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse; we'd rather get back at them. Forgiveness is difficult; bitter feelings lodge in our souls and resist healing. Love requires prayer, strength, common sense, and advice from friends. Love is not just an emotion but always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).

And yet ... how happy we can become, when we can grow past difficult, bitter, or selfish feelings and love others as God loves us! The Gospel is good news because God loves us undeservedly, no matter how we feel. In turn, God does not expect us to love others through our own psychological efforts, but instead gives us power, grace, and an indefinite number of new chances to love.

Loving and serving others seems to have been Wesley’s secret for dealing with his faith-struggles. Wesley had a busy career of preaching and administration but also writing and hands-on service. Heitzenrater notes that “Wesley always seems to have had the ability to preach beyond the limits of his own faith… Since the first days of his field preaching, John Wesley’s own sense of assurance had been buoyed up by the gospel. He considered this evidence of God’s activity in to other persons as an important means of his perceiving God’s providence and of knowing God’s will. And he was becoming more aware that God’s presence in his life did not always depend upon his perception of it” (pp. 224-225).

If someone like Wesley had struggles with his faith, then you and I can use his example amid our own longings for God!

1. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 224.

2. Luther’s Works, Selected Psalms 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Volume 12, page 368.

Christian Love, Part 1

Two entries about Christian love, although this first one takes a roundabout way there.

One of my favorite courses to teach--which unfortunately I won’t be teaching again soon, now that I live in Missouri--was “Buckeye Presidents,” a survey of the eight presidents from Ohio (W. H. Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, W. H. Taft, and Warren G. Harding). The course is essentially a history of the Republican party from the early days of the Whigs through the 1920s, when the G.O.P.’s conservative wing took precedence over Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism. I use course time to educate students, in a non-partisan way of course, about the differences of philosophy and policy of both parties. I tell students that I hope they gain an awareness of politics so that they could make informed decisions.

After feeling dispirited, lately, about politics--the fact that we’ve seen such polarization during the past two presidencies and now Obama’s--I found two articles that gave me some hope. One was Jon Meacham’s excellent editorial, “Words Have Consequences,” in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of Newsweek, where he decries both the liberal demonization of President Bush and the current conservative demonization of President Obama.

I was also interested in an article, “Getting to No: The Republican Dilemma in the Age of Obama” by Peter J. Boyer in last week’s New Yorker (Sept. 28, 2009, pp. 32-36). Boyer quotes former congressman Pat Toomey, “I’m pretty conservative. I’m pro-life, for instance. But it never occurred to me that someone who is pro-choice can’t be a good Republican, or shouldn’t be part of our coalition. We can disagree about that issue, we can try to persuade oeach other about that issue, but that should never be a reason for excluding someone. On fiscal matters, nobody’s got a monopoly on exactly what the right number is that we ought to be spending this year. Now, I think we’ve spent too much, and I’ll argue that pretty forcefully. But reasonable people can disagree about what the right number is. Those are all very health discussions to have within a great party. But there does have to be a unifying theme--there has to be some idea that brings us together, or else its completely meaningless” (p. 33, first column).

Boyer notes how the G.O.P. has rebounded since 2008, but that “[w]ithin the Republican Party, the intensity is all on the side of the aggrieved base” (pp. 36, top of second column). Thinking about Toomey‘s comments, Boyer writes, “The question remaining for many Republicans is whether the Party can develop a strategy beyond opposition, an argument for governing that will expand its appeal [and thus increase a sense of inclusion within the party] beyond its ideological core” (p. 36, bottom of third column).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a spirit of reasonableness and inclusion would typify our political discussions, whether we're Republicans or Democrats? One of the reasons why I’ve been discouraged is the seeming dominance of angry, sometimes irrational voices in our current climate, not only media commentators and politicians but also folks on the street. Race has played some role in the current climate. I would never say that all conflict is unhealthy: conflict can be a way to move issues forward and achieve positive change. But do you achieve political wisdom and cooperation when conflict becomes strident?

I’m being idealistic. I’m a teacher and I believe in open, positive discussion. But even very early presidential elections like 1796 and 1800 were bitter, slanderous campaigns. So were several of the campaigns of the eight presidents I mentioned earlier, and others that you could name. As Meacham notes in his editorial, bipartisan cooperation may be an ideal but we’ve never had anything like a golden age of political concord. Throughout our history, our political system manages to hold together both reasonable discussion, intense controversy, and aggrieved opposition, almost in spite of ourselves.

Christians--and I’ve known some who sound just like their favorite angry pundit--are most definitely called to the wise, careful speech admonished in the Book of Proverbs, as well as the care for feelings and convictions commanded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. Rather than rage publicly and privately, Christians can even use political discussion to display a scriptural model of love.