Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Sin in Our Own House

I’ve been struggling with some thoughts for a couple of weeks, now, on a very controversial theme.  Several recent experiences have coincided to prompt me to think about sexuality, especially homosexuality.   Let me give you pieces and then I’ll try to put them together.  

The Spring Leadership magazine, which I received a couple of weeks ago, deals with various addiction and recovery concerns, including addictions that pastors face, and how the church can deal with them.  This is a really good volume, both for insight into specific addictions, but also more generally for churches who want to think about engaging missionally in our culture.  

The first article especially caught my attention, in part, oddly perhaps, because of an email conversation I’ve had recently with a gay man.   The article features the ministry of Craig Gross, the Porn Pastor, the guy who started XXX Church (an internet ministry to people with porn addictions).  He and his family have moved to Nevada from Michigan in order to work more extensively with sex workers and other people caught in the web of this sin.   

And now to the point: In the interview, he refers to a study which found that nearly half of pastors surveyed (48%) admit to porn addiction.  He then ponders whether this fact is the reason churches are generally not dealing very well with this problem.  

Enter my email conversation with a gay man from Iowa, who is understably following closely the constitutional changes in his State.  The heart of our conversation had to do with gay marriage.  

I hold what would be considered a traditional view of marriage and homosexuality, so I wound up expending a good deal of energy explaining myself to this guy.   I’m often frustrated with the terms and lines of argument (or lack thereof) used to talk about this most difficult of topics.  I always wind up trying to distinguish myself from the hard-line Right Wing stridency while speaking (gently) for a traditional view.  

Whenever I get involved in such conversations, and particularly recently, I become painfully aware of our Christian hypocrisy.  Our inability to deal with heterosexual sin with appropriate love and discipline is perhaps the biggest roadblock of all to working out our differences over gay marriage.  

United Methodist Annual Conferences across the country will soon be voting to ratify a number of constitutional amendments.  There are several good reasons for these changes, but traditionalists are worried about potential impact on the gay marriage questions.  So, we’re starting to gear up for floor debates.  I dread them.  

Straight people, we must make some courageous moves toward getting our own houses in order, if we want to have any moral ground whatsoever upon which to stand when we talk about homosexual practice.  The log is in our own eyes.  Certainly we can’t wait until we’re near-sinless before we engage the issues.  But if the statistic about pastors and porn is true and if we face the fact that very few congregations deal well at all with any kind of sin, much less sexual sin (does anyone remember fornication, adultery and divorce?) then it becomes almost impossible for us not to look like utter Pharisess.

Advertisements

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Living the New Creation Reality

The Thursday before Easter I presided at a funeral of a man I did not really know.  I had presided over his grandson’s funeral several years ago.  I then had his daughter’s funeral (the mother of the boy who had died).  Three years ago, he put me down as the pastor to do his funeral.

At the graveside, among the scripture readings that I used, I read these words from 1 Corinthians: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam] so we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

Christians believe a really weird claim.  Not only did Jesus rise from the dead to live in a completely new order, a new creation, but so will his followers.  “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound…and we will be changed.”  

In John 20:19ff., the text says that the disciples were gathered together in the room and the door was locked for fear of what the religious authorities might do to them and (poof?) Jesus appears among them and says “Peace be with you.”  How did Jesus get in if the door was locked?  He just appeared.  

But not as a ghost or something; not a mere apparition.  The text then says that he showed them his hands and side, as if to say, “Yep, it’s really me.”  

Christians believe some weird stuff and the resurrection is probably the weirdest.  Maybe this is why, after we have had our nice little Easter celebrations, we go back to living and acting like nothing is different.  

I do it.  I sometimes refer to myself, somewhat disparagingly, as a “professional  Christian.”  In other words, it’s my job to pray (especially publicly at ceremonial gatherings) and to help lead a religious community in various ways.  It’s my job to have some kind of answer when spiritual or religious questions arise.  It’s my job to oversee certain ceremonies at certain times in people’s lives and deaths.  And I get paid to do these things.  I’m a professional Christian.  It’s easy, after Easter, to settle back into “normal.”  

But if am I a true believer, I can’t settle back into “normal.”  Am I a true believer?  When I say those words over the grave, words about rersurrection to new life, do I believe them?  

I do.  Still, sometimes I wonder, because belief in the resurrection is weird.  Sometimes I ask myself, “Do I really believe it?”  I do.  And I know that it’s weird.  

Therefore, I (we) do not have the luxury to live as if there is no new creation.  If I (we) believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that his resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation, then today, tomorrow, and every day – then right now – we live in the New Creation.

As my Dad used to say, “I don’t understand all I know about this matter.”  The resurrection hope is just weird.  But I believe it.  And I want to see it and live it, daily.  

May Paul’s words set the course for us: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord [in the New Creation reality] your labor is not in vain.”  May we followers of Jesus demonstrate by our lives the New Creation reality.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Easter Monday

Easter Monday.  The second day of the New Creation.  

Because I am again serving as pastor to two small congregations, I preached yesterday.   I followed the lectionary and used Mark 16:1-8 as the Gospel text.

Perhaps because of our circumstances, I was taken with how the story describes the response of the women to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.   “Terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Here the so-called shorter ending of Mark stops.  It is thus replete with ambiguity.  The scripture clearly states that Jesus is alive.  The women don’t know how to deal with this news, so they do nothing.

Their lack of action seems particularly relevant for the way many of us live today.  We Christians claim to be Easter people, but we live pretty much like Jesus were still dead.  It’s Easter Monday.  After the little bump of Easter festivities, what is different about today?  What is different about our vision?  Our witness?

As part of my personal prayer time, I have been reading through 1 Corinthians.  As you might imagine, chapter 15 has been holding my attention.  This morning I re-read verses 24-25: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”    

I found myself asking, “By what means is Christ now destroying every ruler, authority and power?”  Clearly Paul believes that God is the Lord of history, period.  We’ve all had our view about history distorted by learning that it involves (social history excepted) only major public events: governments and wars and world leaders and such.   Jesus doesn’t seem to fit very well in that picture, even for Christians.   

This historical myopia exposes a huge problem.  I think the answer to how Christ is destroying rulers and authorities is “by means of Christian witness,” not a comforting thought.  We (American) Christians are not doing too good a job in the witness department.  

We’ve gotten too cozy with rulers and powers.   Again I’m using terms I don’t like.  Conservative Christians have tried to use the levers of governmental power to legislate against abortion, homosexual practice, taxes, etc.  Liberals have taken the same tactic with a different view of the same issues.  Then the two groups argue about who is “more Christian,” as if advocating for legislation is Christian witness.  

Certainly we have a responsibility to act as good citizens, which means we should have opinions about such matters.  But we should also remember that this citizenship is double-edged, fraught with temptation.  And when we permit our witness to narrow to nothing more than expressing certain political opinions, even if couched in the rhetoric of morality, we should be ashamed.  I know it has been said a thousand times by people more eloquent than I: when Christians get too comfortable with worldly power, we forfeit our good witness.  We still have a witness.  It’s just a bad one.

It’s Easter Monday.  By God’s grace, let Jesus’ people make a good witness.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Killing Our Children with Love

The professor has learned something from his students.  

The context: I contribute four sessions to a general education course at Southwestern College called “Critical Issues in Health.”  It’s an ambitious class that attempts to help students think about the integrated nature of well-being: physical, relational, and spiritual.  We take a team-oriented, approach, covering everything from exercise to nutrition to personal strengths to spirituality, which is where I come in.  

The last of my sessions focuses on “margin,” using Richard Swenson’s book by that title.  Unfortunately, they don’t have to read the book (heh, heh, not enough time), but I ask them to read a synopsis that I’ve given them.  For yesterday’s assignment, I asked them to bring a question for discussion from their reading.  The teacher is about to learn.

As the discussion proceeded, I became increasingly puzzled.  Many of their questions contained a “We can do it all” assumption.  The students didn’t really buy Swenson’s major claim, that we all need margin in all dimensions of our lives.  

I was surprised to say the least, so I pressed them: “I listen to students all the time complain about stress.  Sometimes I see you in panic mode because you’re so overloaded.”  One of them responded with something like, “Maybe we’ve lived with so much stress all our lives that it just seems normal.” 

I’ve read Jean Twenge’s book, Generation Me, and though I’ve also read criticisms of her method, I think there’s much truth to her observations.  They match my own.  College students do appear to be naively confident in their abilities and their dreams for the future are often shockingly unrealistic.

I was attributing this present conversation to the same naivete.  But the student’s comment drew me up short.   These students have been programmed, lessoned, ball-gamed, recitaled, since they were three and four years old.  It’s not naivete that they think they can do it all.  It’s that they have been doing it all.  Doing it all is sort of expected. 

The problem is thus far worse than youthful naivete.  What a tragic irony!  We are killing our children with love.  Good motivation (to give our children experiences that enrich their lives) has been perverted into something monstrous.  Our young people are multi-talented multi-taskers who are shockingly, shamefully underdeveloped spiritually.  We want our children to grow into amazing adults.  We parents have contributed to their doing the exact opposite.  

Christian parents seem as clueless as anyone.  And the surveys are showing it.  The easy target is lack of Bible knowledge.  I can attest and it worries me.  But more signficant, even if less dramatic, is the spiritual hunger that young people try to feed by free-lancing.  And because many (most?) consider the array of available sources (especially Internet) as neutral “information,” they feel free to patch beliefs and practices together willy-nilly, according to their own, individualized preferences.    

Our students are simply living the way we have taught them.  Parents and pastors: we are responsible for this situation.  We should take responsibility for improving it.  

If you’re intersted in Swenson’s book on margin, you can find it and other matters at www.richardswenson.org.

April 10, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | | Leave a comment

In a Sea of Gray Hair

These days I am near-obsessed by two constants: (1) in church gatherings, young people make up the tiniest sliver of the whole group.  I get invited a fair amount to preach here and there and the experience is always the same: a bare few young people in an ocean of gray hair and wrinkled faces.  I mean no offense.  I have plenty of gray hair and some sagging flesh myself.   (2)  Young people really do feel judged and rejected by church people.  I’m genuinely puzzled, because I’m around church folk who truly are kind, gentle, friendly people.  And then I hear another mind-boggling, gut-twisting account from a college student who was told not to come back to church until (s)he straightens out a drinking problem.  I don’t know whether to cry or cuss.  Sometimes I do both.  

Did the student misunderstand?  Maybe.  We’d love to think so.  But I’ve heard stories like this one too often to explain it away as youthful misunderstanding.  Maybe it happens because we’re still “reading” young people through the tumults of the’60s.  Many churches who should be joyfully interacting with young people let this memory dictate their vision and their attitude.  

We mistakenly think of college students as 21st century versions of what we (Baby Boomers) were.  We helped to institutionalize the generation gap.  When we were college students, we felt deceived and angry.  We had discovered the deep hypocrises of “the Establishment,” which included churches and denominations.  

Today’s college students feel excluded and hurt, not deceived and angry. Church leaders, pay attention!   Woundedness can certainly manifest in angry words.  The attitudes of today’s college students can remind us of the ’60s, but let’s take care not to miss the critical difference.  

As a number of studies have pointed out, young people today are knee-jerk individualists.  It’s what they know.  It’s the language they use.  But we should not be fooled by the language and we most certainly should not mistake it for some kind of generation gap.  Under the confident exterior (which is sincere), many college students are scared to death to mess up.  They want to know if we’ll still love them if we discover they’re not perfect.    

I’ve said in other posts that I have little interest in rescuing a denomination, although I love The United Methodist Church.  But I have to say, there is something quite bizarre, even grotesque, about large gatherings of Christians that involve so few young people.

How do we take a collective look in the mirror and get concerned enough actually to do something more than talk?

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Kinda’ Spooky

At home over lunch, I saw on CNN that the grandmother of soap operas, “The Guiding Light,” will air its final program on September 18, 2009. After 72 years it is being canceled. This soap opera started on radio in 1937 and jumped to TV in 1952, according to the article I read (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-guiding-light2-2009apr02,0,9413.story).

Here’s the spooky part: the viewing audience has shrunk from almost 5 million viewers ten years ago to 2.17 million viewers now. The median age of the regular viewers – 56.5 years.

It sounds eerily familiar to another great institution I know.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | Religion | , , | Leave a comment

“Have to” Questions, “How Do You Know” Questions

I’m helping to teach a class that affords me opportunity to interact with college students about spirituality. In such venues two sets of questions alway arise. I’m thinking about the unhelpful ways we in the ministry often answer them

I call the two categories “have to” questions and “how do you know” questions. An example of the “have to” question: “Do I have to go to church in order to be a (good) Christian?”

To the “have to” question I can give a pat answer: “Well, no, of course you don’t have to go to church in order to be a good Christian. But good Christians want to do what helps them grow, and going to church helps us grow and…” Though true, I think this common answer is wide of the mark.

College students ask “have to” questions because they’re trying to figure out how to handle freedom. Hence, it not a question driven by rebellion, which is typically how we assess it. They are trying to make sense of the multifaceted nature of their desires. They want to be Christian. They don’t want to waste time doing something boring and unhelpful or being where they don’t feel connected or known. In other words, there might be a lot more to the “have to” question than the standard answer permits.

So, instead of answering with the somewhat expected (and superficial) answer, I think we ought to ask students why they want to know. What other thoughts are connected to the “have to” question? What’s driving them to be concerned? The important question: What is it like to be a grown-up Christian where “have to” is irrelevant? I’m reminded again (I’m a slow learner sometimes) of the importance of letting “have to” questions become the staging ground for transformative interaction.

An example of the “how do you know” question: “How do you know that your religion is the right one?” Students face a staggering array of options. After all, they Google something and they get seemingly limitless hits and a head-spinning range of possibilities. How do they know which option to pursue?

If, in response, I switch to “apologetics” mode and launch my vast intellectual armaments in defense of the faith (a very important task, to be sure, but misdirected here), I will lock on to what sounds like skepticism and completely miss the fragile openness, the hesitant vulnerability standing before me. I dare not stomp on the tenderness of this holy moment!

Now, I’m not advocating some version of the high brow liberalism (pardon the term) I got as a seminary student: you know, the “It’s not the answer but the question that matters” claptrap, which is superficially true, but usually intellectually dishonest. Sooner or later, everybody wants a satisfying answer, even while recognizing it’s only partial.

That point accepted, I still must recognize that the “have to” and the “how do you know” questions are golden opportunities for God’s grace to be poured out. If we care about evangelism; if we feel called to apologetics, let us please hold gently in our hearts the people asking the questions.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments