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Monday, September 26, 2011

Gestures and Postures

Yesterday afternoon I watched a professional football game. The two teams played with a passion befitting their rivalry. In a tight fourth quarter the visiting quarterback, upon completing a key third down pass play, turned both his eyes and index fingers skyward in a familiar athletic gesture of gratitude to God. The very next play, he threw an interception and trotted off the field, chin on his chest.

Thought question: does God also "convert" key third down completions for believing quarterbacks? What if God actually sent the interception? Is there room in a proper gridiron theology for receiving turnovers from the Lord as well as first downs (cf. Job 2:10)? Is there even such a thing as gridiron theology?

Yes, those of us who think quickly of 1 Corinthians 10:31 will say, there is. Football is certainly within the purview of the "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" in that verse. And, looking at that 1 Corinthians 10 context, my eye catches the verse immediately before, verse 30, where Paul expresses incredulity at anyone who would denounce his expression of gratitude for that which he was grateful for (the context has to do with whether a Christian could eat meat offered to idols—a subject I think many football players, knowing well their way to the delicatessen, would find interesting). So I'm not criticizing the quarterback's first down praise, no more than I would want to be criticized for making the same gesture in my office when a dreaded phone call is well-received.

On a Sunday morning a few weeks back two of my church members waited for me after a sermon. One thrilled me with tears in his eyes for how God is using him to reach a neighbor; the other picked off the joy with a complaint. One moment I was exulting in the flight of a ball well-caught; the next the air was out of the ball.

It will be for another post to consider how it is possible to give thanks for the defensive back as well as my receiver (Romans 5 teaches as much). Strange would be the quarterback who did in a game. But then witness how most pro football games end with opposing players meeting midfield, standing around chatting. One occasionally sees in those moments a sports-world wonder of wonders: the defensive back who intercepted the quarterback turns out to be his old college teammate, and they embrace and ask about each other's children.

This post is really not about football. It's about recognizing myself—and likely you too—in the quarterback's responses to the great play and the bad play. When I am glad or relieved or achieving, it's chest bumps and fist pumps, head back and hands raised. These are gestures. When I am dismayed or upset or missing my targets, it's shoulder slumps and head droops. These are postures.

The difference is slight. A gesture is chosen, a posture emerges. A gesture is conditioned, a posture is ingrained. In other words, my postures come more natural to me. And this is why, in John Piper's way of putting it, I have to fight for joy; why I need and want to thank God profusely for every positive yard gained at church, home, life.

The bottom may fall out the next play. How does the Bible put it? Sin crouches, pestilence stalks at midday, the flesh is weak. God is not arbitrary. Life is. But when it is the gestures of praise and gratitude coach my posture back upright in order to return to the line of scrimmage. Not reluctantly but eagerly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

An Evanie for Azmaveth

I write this the day after the 2011 Emmy awards.  I didn’t watch it—didn’t know it was on television last night and wouldn’t have watched it anyway.  But you know the award shows: Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, Doves, Espys, CMAs, VMAs, and other less prominent venues.  (I like the annual Golden Raspberry Awards, or “Razzies,” in recognition of the worst in movies.)  These galas can be preening and self-congratulatory, of course, and there is something a tad oxymoronic in effusive “critical acclaim.”  But most award programs emerge from the premise that it is fitting to honorably distinguish those who have particularly excelled in their labors.

In this vein, we recently created the “Evanies” for our staff.  The Evanie is a simple certificate with some kind of “happy” attached like a paid lunch or gift card.  It would be fitting to hand recipients a bronzed cauliflower resting on a Bible in the pattern of our now erstwhile church logo.  But we haven’t the budget for that.

Our Evanies are peer-promoted and given to any First Evan staff member (pastoral or support) who excelled in his or her work.  I even got nominated for one!  Evanies aren’t categorized and only one winner is awarded per week by random draw.  It is simply a fun way for us to regularly commend work well-done, and from the theological premise that our work matters to God.

Many Christians assume “church work” is intrinsically more important to God than “secular work.”  But biblically considered this is a non sequitur.  Consider how, tucked away in all the begats and begottens of 1 Chronicles, there is an interesting little listing of David’s employees.  After noting what each employee’s work was the section concludes, “These were stewards of King David’s property” (1 Chron. 27:31).  Go back in time to David’s day and ask Azmaveth what he does.  He replies, “I am a steward of the king’s treasuries” (a banker or broker, essentially).  And you, Ezri?  “I’m a steward of the king’s soil” (a land manager or farmer).  Obil?  “I’m a steward of all the king’s camels” (animal husbandry, including veterinary care).  There it is: white-collar, blue-collar, and no collar.  But each one’s work benefitted both king and kingdom.

Our work, whatever it is we do and however it is remunerated, takes up the majority of our time and energy every week.  Our work so dominates our years in fact that we tend to fuse what it is we do for a living with who we are or perceive ourselves to be.  But the Christian view of occupation is that our work is more than something to do for filling up our wallets and waking hours each day to a ripe old retirement age.  Our occupations are stewardships through which we fulfill the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor.

Think about it: the most natural context for loving God with all your strength is your daily work.  This follows for loving neighbor, too.  God has given you skills and expertise and aptitude that blesses your neighbors and contributes to their good.  This was the bottom line in Martin Luther’s theology of vocation: that all occupations—pimping, thieving, and serving as a papal priest (!) were Luther’s exceptions—glorified God as long as they contributed to neighbors’ good. 

So the work you do affects others in both the larger socio-economic frame of your entire community to the smaller frame individuals you come into personal contact with in your work.  But as Francis Schaeffer used to teach, there are no little people, no little places.  He meant in the provident ordering of God every one and every place has value.  This is why Luther used to say, “God milks the cows through the vocation of the milkmaids.”

Take garbage collection.  I don’t glorify it and wouldn’t want to do it.  But I do esteem the value of the work garbage collectors do and tell them so when I see them in my neighborhood.  I remember a line from a popular Alabama song (they won a lot of Grammys and CMAs, by the way) years ago that esteemed the value of what we call blue-collar jobs, called “40 Hour Week.”  The line: “And the fruits of their labors is (sic.) worth more than their pay.”  Did you know the first guy in Scripture ever said to be filled with the Spirit of God was blue-collar?  Bezalel was a craftsman whom God filled “with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts” (Ex. 35:31).

The most natural context for loving God and neighbor with all our strength is our daily work, whether we’re blue-collar, white-collar, black-collar, or no collar; whether an Emmy or an Evanie ever recognizes it.  The work you and I do is a gift we’ll love giving to others when we know it delights the one who gifted and fitted us for it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Refuge Called Tuesday

If Tuesday went missing from the week, would anyone miss it?  I would, because as of yesterday Tuesdays are my new day off.  I restructured my week to accommodate weekly staff meetings on Monday mornings (the old day off).  Years ago a pastor-friend in Texas extolled the benefits in making Tuesday his weekly Sabbath day, not the least of which for him, an avid golfer, was more vacant golf courses on Tuesdays.
I’m calling Tuesday my deep-and-quiet day (sounds better than a Mitch Albom-ish Tuesdays with Myself).  Because I like my work, and because it never feels done, I’ve struggled for years to develop a…well, workable rest ethic.  I’ve read books on Sabbath and heard lectures that no pastor is invincible—keep pushing yourself, keep burning the candle at both ends, keep producing and not restocking—and you will eventually burn out like a star.  I always went away from those books and conferences feeling a mixture of longing and conviction and befuddlement because, while I believed in a God who purposefully demonstrated a rest ethic for His people—and even preached to others about it—I was myself the castaway.  I always found a way to exempt myself from the need: my kids are small and active in stuff; my church has a lot of urgent needs for leadership; I need every day to do the writing I want to do; I’m not really a workaholic like so-and-so across town; I like my work anyway; etc.
For a lot of us pastors the struggle to rest consistently and well is compounded by a strain of insecurity in which we fixate on those who don’t believe we “really work,” and thus we feel a greater press to prove we do.  A case-in-point: In the city we moved to Memphis from, I visited my insurance agent one day to adjust a policy.  Directing her secretary to the needed forms, she nodded toward me and committed a Freudian slip: He doesn’t work…. No!  His vehicles are not for business is what I meant to say!  She looked so sheepish and I assured her, over her profound apologies, that I took no offense.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t wince.  But note to self: next time wear my suit to the insurance agent’s office.
I am finally comfortable admitting my need to intentionally pull away from the routines and demands of my work week, to find refuge in this little retreat called Tuesday.  I do it penitently because I cheated on Monday these last few years and did not protect it as a different day.  I scheduled rendezvouses with work and sermon prep on Mondays.  I think I know now what I missed.  So to Tuesday I pledge a renewed faithfulness and zeal for its honor.  Tuesdays are my deep-and-quiet days.
A deep-and-quiet day (and my thanks to Mike Schafer at Sonscape Retreats in Colorado for the term) is day on which I create or produce nothing that I am otherwise creating or producing, or sustaining, the other six days of each week.  This means no writing, no studying, no sermonizing, no meetings (and no tweeting either) on Tuesdays; only reading for pleasure and unhurried prayer and “whatever your hand finds to do.”  I may watch a movie in the middle of the day, visit the zoo, drive somewhere just to hear the hum of my truck’s tires on the road.  Lunch with Lynn will be a highlight of most Tuesdays.  Lynn had a lunch commitment yesterday, so I took Caley Kate up the street for chicken sandwiches in that restaurant that treats Sundays as I’m treating Tuesdays: closed for business.
One Tuesday every six weeks or so, I will take a personal retreat off somewhere, alone.  But otherwise on Tuesdays I’m present to my family and engaged with them.  The key is to do with the day what relaxes and refreshes and replenishes.  Yesterday that included a two-hour mountain bike ride on the Wolf River trails and greenway.  There I found a perfect prayer spot by the river.  It was a beautiful morning.  But because I’d pedaled there through thick brush in which I recognized poison ivy vines, I knew I needed to get home quickly and scrub my legs with dishwashing liquid (it works—no itching I’m thankful to report).  I know now where to return for that missed prayer time yesterday.
I don’t have illusions about Tuesdays being perfect.  I’m not after perfect anyway; peaceful will do nicely.  It’s funny to me now, how when I was in seminary I assumed I’d have to work at working in my ministry career.  Instead I’ve found I have to work at resting.  I have a long way to go.  But I know now on what day I’ll get there.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What I'd Really Like to Say About Church Attendance

I have a pastor-friend who speaks of letting things “perk” in you.  He doesn’t mean “perk” as in perkiness (thank God, as I am anything but perky), but “perk” as in percolator—meditating on something until you are ready to share it.  The perking doesn’t have to mean your words pour out piping hot.  When that happens one usually scalds people.  There’s a difference between scalding and scolding (a good biblical example of the difference is Psalm 39).  I’ve found God’s people can usually receive scolding if it is occasional, specific, substantive, and communicated without rancor, cynicism, or sarcasm.
With a holiday weekend just past, I have before me the opportunity to address church attendance.  In my 42 years—all of it spent in that last cultural bastion of “churchedness,” the South—presence at church has been, if not devalued, at least deemphasized.  Pastors of churches like mine used to stress attendance, not because they were number mongers, but from a core value that worshippers’ most visible expression of their commitment to the church was their attendance.  Families were expected to adjust their vacation or weekend travels to not miss church on Sunday or, if they could not, to attend church wherever they were on Sunday mornings.  This is how it used to be not that long ago.
But this core value is no longer taken for granted.  Yes, people should want to come to church; there is something pathetic in cajoling anyone to it; and some church aficionados will postulate that sporadic attendance is just another indication of church plateau.  Not always.  I’ve found that sporadic attendance can mean congregants believe their church is in such good shape that they aren’t missed.
It is not uncommon now for pastors to theologize church attendance by pointing out that the church is not a place but a people, not a Sunday event in a building but an experience of being the people of God in the world.  (Is it coincidental we began working this angle the more hyperextended and overstuffed our people’s lifestyles got?  We should be wary of theology adjusting for lifestyle.)  These contrasts between the church as place or people, however, true as they are, were never meant to be so starkly either/or, nor to convey that the assembling of ourselves together is optional.  And I’m referring here to what pastors who love and make their living in the institutional church have said and taught, not what the home-church or family integrated church movements say and teach, which are critical (I’d say overly so) of the institutional church.
The consequence for telling our people, both directly and indirectly, that their presence on Sunday morning is not as important as the worship of their lives throughout the week is that a lot of our people now believe their presence on Sunday morning is not as important as the worship of their lives throughout the week.  The law of unintended consequence is at work here, for in trying to trim the fat from evangelical ecclesiology—which was once too much about church attendance—we’ve cut into the muscle.
I say “we” because I share complicity in this.  When I was tapped to be Senior Pastor of First Evan, our Sunday evening service was on the backside of decline and our Wednesday Prayer Meeting, once an attendance staple at First Evan, is now a small group.  As a candidate, I conveyed to our search committee and Session that I had no interest in reclamation projects of either venue.  I still don’t.  But some in our church blame me for the attendance decline of these gatherings, believing I should steer them and commandeer the needed bodies to them.  I understand their frustration and agree with their argument that when a church gives away her Sunday nights and Wednesday nights to people’s otherwise interests, it is only a matter of time before the people are also less vigilant about Sunday morning.
But blaming me for Sunday nights and Wednesday nights not being like they used to be is like blaming the judge for reading the jury’s verdict.  Most of our church, well-before I got to Memphis, had foregone Sunday night worship and Wednesday night prayer, and acquitted themselves of any guilt that in so doing they were not committed to worship or prayer.  I was received into a church that said to me, essentially: Sunday morning is life, the rest is just details.
Years ago, a church in Arizona expressed an interest in me.  A friend put me in touch with a friend of his who had moved there to plant a church.  I was seeking some cultural perspective from someone who made the same cultural adjustment I would have to make.  During our conversation by phone, I still remember his critique of pastoring in the West: “People are really into themselves out here.” 
He explained what he meant by that.  A free-spirited, non-churched culture in a temperate climate with abundant recreational opportunities meant most people used their weekends for themselves.  Sunday was play-day before trudging back to work on Monday.  At the time, I was thankful that our traditional-spirited, churched culture in a humid-in-the-summer-cold-in-the-winter climate meant that our people, namely Christians, aren’t as “into themselves” here as there.
I was wrong about that.  It is true: in giving up Sunday nights and Wednesday nights to “family time,” families are taking liberties with Sunday mornings, too.  And so I post these thoughts for this main reason: I want to ask our families to reconsider their values and priorities when it comes to Sunday mornings, to consider whether they’ve gotten a bit too “into themselves.” 
I commend you highly for taking the time to have a family devotion at the lake house on Sunday morning.  But it is not the same thing as church.  And travel clubs for your budding star athletes?  You are teaching your children that their sport is more vital than their church; that the individual hope of a college scholarship is more valuable than the communal hope we gather together on Sunday mornings to praise God for.  So you didn’t bag your limit of ducks on Saturday and will stay over at the lodge for more hunting Sunday?  Practice the discipline of limits and come home Saturday to gather with your brothers and sisters on Sunday morning.  I don’t want to hear any more about “the sanctuary of a duck blind” as justification for missing church on Sunday.  You can have that sanctuary any other day of the week.
Sad, isn’t it, that we’re so oversensitive to legalism some will misconstrue this post as me engaging in it?  Ah, well, maybe I am.  Our motives are always multiple and frequently mixed.  I’m not saying one can never miss church services.  I am saying our misses are too frequent, too casual, and too costly in the end if we pass on—unintentionally but nevertheless—an ecclesial apathy to our kids. 
Again, the church has at times overemphasized attendance as the be-all, end-all of Christian experience and that is shoddy ecclesiology, for the church is more than a place and event.  But we’ve overcompensated the steering coming out of that skid and now underemphasize our assembling.  It is my place to call us to reflect upon our values and repent accordingly.