Saturday, July 29, 2006

Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and (Circular) Reason: The New Quadrilateral?

Here’s what I’m talking about. Today in our Kansas City paper, a prominent mega-church pastor wrote a little column answering the question, “How far should Christian tolerance of other faiths go?” Of course, he was set up, really. Using the red-flag-raising word “tolerance” isn’t really fair, since the word begs definition and clarifying before anyone can talk about it. Plus they only have him a few inches of newspaper space to answer, and I’m sure that if had been given sufficient room, he would have said more.


He first makes a helpful if unnecessary distinction between “tolerance” and “love” – meaning that while we love everyone, we don’t necessarily need to tolerate them. With this distinction, we can already see where he is headed. He writes, “We know that the God’s Word is true [sic]. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the bedrock of the Christian faith. Anything more, anything less, any alternative religious system cannot also be true.”

(Wait, “anything more?” Huh?)

He goes on to say that although we Christians love everyone, “it is not our place” to “choose which things are true or false.” And that (here it comes … are you ready?) since “Jesus himself” says he is the truth (quoting John 14:6), “who are we to say differently?”

Here is a strictly hypothetical conversation:
Me: You are a Christian, huh?
Mega-Church Pastor: Yes, sir!
Me: Hey, me too! That’s great. So that means you believe Jesus is the truth, right?
MCP: Yes, absolutely.
Me: Hey that’s cool. Can I ask how you know that?
MCP: Because he says he is.
Me: (awkward pause to consider the logical flow of the conversation) But how do you KNOW that what he is saying is true?
MCP: Because he is the truth.
Me: And … let’s see…how do you know he’s the truth? Oh yeah, you know that because he says he is, right?
MCP: That’s what I wrote in my column, and I’m sticking to it!

My point is not so much that this one pastor might have said more about Jesus-as-truth had he been given sufficient time and space to do so. (Not to mention what exactly he meant by “anything more” than the Gospel – like, God?) My point is that people read this column and think, “What in the world? Why would I ever want to be a part of something so irrelevant to my life? I am seeking purpose, meaning, I want something to live for, I want something that will make sense! I had better look somewhere other than the church to find that, I guess.”

And thus there is all the more work to do for people of faith who want to share the Gospel of Christ with our neighbors in a way that doesn’t resort to self-referential jargon to accomplish that mission.

In the meantime, I found this while preparing tomorrow’s sermon:
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19, emphasis added)

There we go! Maybe Christian epistemology is a worthless endeavor after all, Tim Sisk! That which we are seeking to know surpasses knowledge itself. Reminds me of something Brian McClaren wrote, “One doesn’t learn what God is like in a library or pew and then begin to love God in real life. One begins to love God and others in real life. In the process one learns what God is like – and one might be driven to the library and pew to learn more. Anyone who doesn’t embark on the adventure of love doesn’t know God at all, whatever he can say or define or delineate, for God is love” (Generous Orthodoxy, 207). I marked that one in my margin!

Or something Linus said to Charlie Brown once, "To know me is to love me!" But maybe when God says it it is, "To love me is to know me."
Hmm ...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Full House

Hey! Great news! We are now providing care for two wonderful children as their foster parents for a while. And so far, so good.

And there is kind of a fun story that goes along with this news, a story that starts long before we knew we would be having two foster kids...

It seemed like a good idea at the time. "Sure," we said to my parents, "We'll watch your dog for you while you go on vacation." After all, she is a big, old, slow dog who doesn't do much but lie around the house all day. No sweat.

So then, when my brother called, asking if we would watch his dog for the weekend, the same weekend we were watching my parents dog, we thought we could handle it. His dog is a ... hmm ... how to put this delicately? ... smidge more hyperactive, shall we say. But for just a weekend, we can do that. "Sure, B. Bring her on over."

Then he calls back, "Umm ... do you think you guys maybe could watch her for three or four more days? Our plans have changed." With a bit of hesitation, we say, "Uh, okay." Now, you have to understand that when I say the dog is a smidge more hyperactive than most dogs, I mean she is absolutely insane.

So we were to have four dogs in the house, our two plus the two we were watching. One of our dogs is in the old-and-not-very-active category, and one is a-smidge-more-hyperactive. Not absolutely insane like my brother's dog, but up there. But we would be fine - a little crazy, but fine.

So that, of course, is when we got a call from a case worker, wondering if we might have two foster kids come to live with us. It was the call for which we have been waiting these past four months, so of course we said "YES!" And we had the pre-placement visit which went very well, so two days later, here they are! And they are absolutely wonderful. They have seen and experienced way too much in their short lives, and we are all taking our time about getting to know one another, learning to trust each other, and basically figuring each other out.

Thus we are currently housing two grown-ups, four children, and four dogs, two of whom are a smidge hyperactive. Of course, this is also the week my grandparents are moving from North Carolina to Dallas, and a bunch of stuff from their house will be coming to our house in Kansas City next Monday, some to stay and some for temporary storage. Plus I caught a nasty summer cold that kept me home Wednesday, we have four church people in the hospital I need to keep tabs on, and a funeral set for next Monday morning. Other than that, not much going on!

It's all good! We are still smiling, at least at the moment. But the last week of July, 2006, will go down in Bryan family history as quite a remarkable week, to be sure.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pastoral Care Triage

Bill Tammeus writes good stuff – about faith, the church, ministry, and life in general. This week, he wrote about pastoral care. Using a touching story about a young man who received care from a non-clergy caregiver, Bill wrote that some of the most meaningful pastoral care a person can receive come from laity, rather than clergy.

He goes on to say that many congregations are simply not set-up to equip the laity to do pastoral care. Why not? He gives three reasons.

Reason 1:
“Sometimes it’s because people act like they belong to a club with a hired manager (the clergy) instead of to a church that requires ministry of some kind from all members.”
I know congregations like this, don’t you?

Reason 2:
“Sometimes it’s because clergy are insecure and feel threatened when competent laypeople express an interest in living out their faith by offering pastoral care to others.”
I know clergy like this, don’t you?

Reason 3:
“But mostly congregations fail in this area simply because their members are so busy just surviving, just doing all that must be done to work, rear children, pay the mortgage and nurture family relationships that they think they have no time to spend” doing pastoral care.
I know … just about everybody fits in here … don’t you?

I have developed a kind of pastoral care triage by which I work, in order to keep things all in balance, or, at least as balanced as possible. I have to start out with the confession that I will not be able to visit every person who needs a visit. That is hard for me to say, because I am a type “A,” first born perfectionist with a pretty advanced case of “People Pleaser-itis.” It is hard for me to acknowledge that I am unable to be all things for all people. But the truth is, I simply cannot provide pastoral care for everyone who needs it.

But I try very hard to provide pastoral care to everyone who asks for it. Triage level one is people in the hospital and their loved ones, family and friends of people who have just died, and people who come to me with immediate crises, situations in their lives that are urgent, spiritual or emotional needs that they need to talk about. Providing pastoral care at this level takes up a lot of time. In fact, it takes up just about all of my week that isn’t allotted to something else like worship planning, sermon writing, study preparation, correspondence, and the like.

That leaves out triage level two which is comprised of people who, for physical, spiritual, or emotional health reasons we need to sort of “keep in touch with” more intentionally. They are not in immediate crisis mode, but are still very fragile, very vulnerable. This group is ministered to by our able and dedicated group of Stephen Ministers. I cannot commend this program highly enough for a church wanting to expand its care-giving ministries. The Stephen Ministers in our congregation are compassionate, well-trained, and have a clear understanding of their role in the life of the church. I am so grateful for them.

There is another level, though. This group is comprised of people who are not in immediate crisis, and who are not in an especially vulnerable place, but who just may not be able to get out of their house, or may live in a nursing home or care facility. Some refer to these people as “shut-ins” or “homebound” persons. I visit such persons only rarely. I wish I could more often, but the reality is that I cannot. Fortunately, we have a gifted and compassionate man who has answered God’s call to coordinate (as a volunteer staff member) the visiting ministries of our congregation, and his focus is on people in this category. One of his ongoing challenges is to equip and train more visiting ministers to stay connected with God through their church.

I guess I am lucky to be serving in a congregation who doesn’t think that I am the hired manager of their club. Also, I try to encourage and equip parishioners to offer pastoral care in various ways without any fear or insecurity that they will be somehow usurping my role. My prayer is that we will all not end up being “so busy surviving” that we end up unable to care for one another as we should. A church whose members care for one another is a healthy church. And a pastor who is fortunate enough to be a part of such a congregation is a healthy pastor, as well!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Jesus Scores a Big-Time Endorsement Deal!

Let us stand and sing our opening hymn:

Here comes the King, here comes the big number one!
He's Jesus Christ, the King, he's second to none!
The King is coming, to save us all!
When you say Christ, you've said it all!

Hat tip. Link.

Nifty Blog Idea

One of my friends has started a blog called STILL: Life. Every day he posts a photograph that in some way, shape, or form documents his day. But he has given himself a rule - there can be no people in his pictures. It has been really fascinating to visit STILL: Life every day and see his pictures and read the titles to his posts. Go on over and check it out.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Our Fifteen Minutes (Actually One Minute, Thirty-Five Seconds)

Last week a long lost friend found me by googling my name. It has been really great to reconnect with her.
One of the things she found on google, which I had almost forgotten about, was a news story that UMTV did about my family. You can watch in from the archives by clicking here. Keep in mind that it was three years ago, and my hair is much better now!

Rambling Thoughts: Service

(The following is a post written by Bishop Monk Bryan, my grandfather, whose "rambling thoughts" about God, church, and life in general are a periodic feature of Enter the Rainbow, depending on how freely he will offer them!)

I have just learned a bit about those strange people called "Methodists".

Through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, they have sent :
$ 8,000,000.00 to help after the earthquake in Pakistan.
$40,000,000.00 to help after the tsunami in Indonesia.
$80,000,000.00 to help after Katrina.

And, they have sent over 1,000 work teams and over 100,000 people to work and help if relief, recovery, and rebuilding along the Gulf coast after Katrina. To snatch a figure out of the air, if these people worked 40 hours, that would total four million hours. That is an investment of each person's life.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Truth in the Bible, Part 3

Forgive me, please, if I seem to have over-simplified anyone’s personal theology in a previous post. That is surely not my intention. I am not so much interested in confronting anyone else’s theology in this series of posts as I am in working out my own. There were several very thoughtful comments after the last post, very diverse in perspective, and quite helpful.

One line of conversation involves the starting place of knowledge – shall we risk oversimplification and boil it down to “scripture” or “experience”? Some will claim, “I start with scripture.” Some will claim, “I start with experience.” Actually, both are right in a way.

Truthfully, none of us “starts with scripture” from a perspective completely untainted by our experience. When we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that everything we know about God has been shaped by a lifetime of experience. Parents, friends, teachers, preachers, encounters with nature, etc. all shape the way we read the scriptures, either positively or negatively.

And at the same time, none of us has such a unique life experience as to separate us from certain central truths that are a part of who God is and who God desires that we become. To elevate life experience to a position higher than God is just as idolatrous as to elevate that fancy wood carving of Sponge Bob Spare Pants to such a position. (Just wanted to make sure you were still paying attention!)

For example, I would feel a little odd saying, "Based on my life experience, God does not desire peace on earth," because peace is a central truth of God’s identity. It is articulated in the Bible, it is an important part of many different faith traditions, it is a good and desirable way of living, and I cannot point to anything in my life experience that would contradict that truth.

But – somebody might! Like my theology professor at Saint Paul always says, “What you see depends upon where you stand.” How about a child somewhere in the inner city whose only experience is daily drug deals, weekly drive-by shootings, and constant fear? How about a Middle-Eastern child who knows only the imminent danger of either a market place bomb or a fully armed tank? It would be hard to convince such a person that, simply because I read it in the Bible, it is true that God wants the world to be at peace. Their own life experience tells them otherwise. I will have to be able to say something else, something reasonable, something grounded in real life experience, something that will make a difference to this one who so desperately needs to know about God’s peace.

Last time, Larry B. wrote, “I personally think scripture has to be backed up by reason for it to hold any personal meaning and depth. God's not changed by our questioning, nor does He reward blind obedience any more than fierce struggle - grace is an undeserved gift.” (I’m telling you, this guy needs his own blog!) He is right, of course. God is not at all threatened by our desire to know more, to understand more fully, to grow closer to God and to become the people God desires that we become.

The questions are “How do I know what I know?” and “Why do I believe what I believe?” and “How did I get to where I am?” If the response, “Because it says so in the Bible” is not fully sufficient for me, does that make me a bad person? Does that diminish my faith? Does that make God love me less? I sure don’t think so. I hope not, because that’s where I find myself these days. But all this thinking and writing about such heavy stuff is making my brain weary. Next post, I promise to lighten up!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Truth in the Bible, Part 2 - "What's Wrong With Sturking?"

A few weeks ago this guy came into my study for a little chat. In the course of the conversation, he said that a certain activity was a sin, and all you needed to do to know that for sure was “read the Old Testament.” I chose not to challenge him at the time, but his comment has been on my mind since then. It has been in the mix with the things I mentioned in my last post, and can serve as a case study for this one.

For the sake of conciseness, let’s make up something to call the certain activity we were talking about – how about “sturking”? And let’s say that somewhere in the Old Testament it says rather unambiguously, “Thou shalt not sturk.” Now, the fun begins!

Try this first:
Why does the Bible say, “Thou shalt not sturk?” Because it is wrong.
How do we know sturking is wrong? Because the Bible says it is.

Doesn’t work too well, does it? Circular reasoning.

Now try this:
Why does the Bible say, “Thou shalt not sturk?” Because it is wrong.
And why does the Bible say that sturking is wrong? Because sturking involves hurting another person. (Just making that up, okay?)

Aha! That works better. Now there is something else supporting the idea that we should never, ever sturk. In other words, it is not wrong because the Bible says it is, but rather the Bible says it is wrong because it involves hurting someone, and hurting someone on purpose, while it is not universally wrong (think of getting a shot from a doctor), in most contexts it is.

So back to the conversation above, the guy says, “Sturking is a sin. To know that, all you have to do is read the Old Testament.”

I might have replied, “But why is it in the Old Testament?”

He might have responded, “Because it is wrong,” which doesn’t work so well for me.
Or he might have said, “Because sturking involves hurting another person, something that is (almost) universally considered to be wrong,” which would work better.

But what if the Bible just says, “Thou shalt not sturk” without specifying an underlying reason for it? In a situation like that, we have options as to how we respond. Some possibilities are:

a - “I don’t think sturking is wrong, so the Bible must be wrong.”
b - “I don’t think sturking is wrong, so let’s figure out through prayer, study, and reflection why the Bible says it is.”
c - “I do think sturking is wrong, and here is the implied underlying truth to which the Bible is pointing.”
d - “I do think sturking is wrong, because the Bible says it is.”

I’m thinking that people with responses “a” and “d” are not going to have any fun talking together. But it is quite possible that people with responses “b” and “c” can somehow manage to get along, go out for lunch, and maybe even have a fruitful conversation about sturking through the ages.

Here’s what I know now: I believe that God desires this world to be a place filled with love, peace, justice, humility. I believe this about God. Furthermore, I believe that the Bible is the God-inspired expression of those divine desires. But I do not believe that we should “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” because the Bible tells us to. Rather, I believe we should do all that stuff because God wants us to.

If we can do so without sturking anyone, so much the better.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Laughing Out Loud

I know this one is old and you have probably seen it before, but I laugh out loud every time, so I'm sharing it. I love you, mom!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Truth in the Bible - Part 1

In his book, “A Generous Orthodoxy,” Brian McClaren seems to simply take a little taste of what he likes from each dish of the Christian smorgasbord, and leave the other stuff behind. I guess that’s okay, if you are a fan of smorgasbords, but if you prefer to order from the menu, you probably won’t like his theology. His is the potluck supper of theology, where if you don’t like something that someone brings to the table, you just leave it off your plate.

I am most fascinated by his honesty about how he got to where he is, and how he continues to be formed by God. I love his answer in the final chapter to the question of whether his Christianity is orthodox: “A little, but not yet” (p. 333). Being orthodox doesn’t mean having everything “right,” says McClaren, but living in a mode of seeking and seeing that opens up the possibilities that God has put out there.

And so I have been thinking lately about the Bible, specifically thinking about how the Bible forms and informs orthodoxy as McClaren sees it, as a mode of living out one’s relationship with God. Along with McClaren, I believe that the Bible is “a gift from God, inspired by God, to benefit us in the most important way possible: equipping us so that we can benefit others, so that we can play our part in the ongoing mission of God” (p. 177). I consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God, and I’ll admit that I bristle a bit when those who differ with me accuse me of not honoring it as they do, simply because our interpretations differ. I believe the Bible contains truth, and discovering the truth draws one closer to God. This is not the same as being “right,” by the way, but rather seeking to know the truth, so that the truth might set one free – not per se in the knowing of it, but in the seeking. The great adventure is in the quest, not in the discovery.

And thus, my question du jour about the Bible is: “Is a thing true because the Bible says it is, or does the Bible say a thing because it is true?” This is a profoundly important theological and epistemological question with which people of faith must wrestle. And I don’t think it is adequate to answer this with a both/and answer, as in, “Yes, the Bible says things because they are true and also things are true simply because the Bible says they are.” I think maturing in faith requires an either/or answer to this question.

So either a) things are true because the Bible says they are; or b) things are true and so the Bible says they are.

Example: The Bible says “God is love.” Is God love because the Bible says so, or was God love already, so the Bible reflects that truth? If it is the former, end of discussion. But if the latter, the discussion has only just begun. That goes to the question of epistemology – how do I know that God is love? Is it because Bible says so? Or maybe I learned it first from reading the Bible, and other experiences in my life have confirmed it? Or maybe somebody taught it to me at some point in my youth, and upon reading it later in the Bible, it clicked into place?

I have a few more posts on this topic that are percolating right now, but are not fully brewed yet. I’ll be sure to pour out a cup when that happens. In the meantime, I welcome any responses, reactions, thoughts, musings that my meager ramblings may elicit.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Nana, Memory, and Life Meaning

One of the tasks I accomplished while in Lake Junaluska last week was photographing my grandmother’s art work. Nana died in 1989, and was for all of her life an artist – painting, needlepoint, music. She is my family’s inspiration, our muse. She provided the spark that lit the artistic fire in our familial hearts. She taught me to see all the colors in a sunset one evening some twenty years ago, while we were walking around the lake, gazing into the mountains.

Last week, we were spending our vacation with my grandfather, Bishop Monk Bryan (or, if you know him as well as I do, “Daddy Monk”) and his wonderful wife of the past fourteen years, Twila (the widow of Bishop Mac Stowe, by the way), who are within a few weeks of moving away from the beautiful mountains of North Carolina to live in a retirement community in Dallas. (92 years old, and he still hasn’t retired!) During the week, in between “vacation-y” activities, we were helping Daddy Monk and Twila get ready for the big move, and part of my contribution to that effort was taking pictures of Nana’s art to send to family members, which gets me back to where I was going in the first place:

As I set up each painting and needlework in the light of the living room lamp, I got a glimpse of Nana. I lingered with each piece, imagining her beautiful hands as they held a brush to delicately touch the canvas, imagining her sensitive eyes as they carefully studied and appraised her work, imagining her playful imagination as she placed the bright red cardinal on the bird feeder or recreated a dizzying cable car journey up the German Alps. And with the click of the shutter and the snick of the flash, the image was converted to a digital file that will never be able to adequately convey the life of the painting itself, nor the life of Nana it represents to me, but at least will preserve a little memory for years to come.

Great-Grandparents! How wonderfully blessed are my children, to have not only Daddy Monk and Twila, but also my maternal grandmother (Nanny), alive and well and playing such a big role in their lives! Think of the memories my kids will have, of four generations together for such wonderful times.

Nana’s name was Corneille. My daughter’s name is Corneille. Eight-year-old Corneille refers to Nana as “Grandma Corneille.” This is significant. “Nana” is my name for her; “Grandma Corneille” is Cori’s name for her. Same person, two different facets of meaning.

Letting go and moving on. Peeking around the corner to see what is next. Wondering where that twisty mountain road might take us. It is the stuff of life. A house filled with nine decades of life, all being packed away, possessions lovingly caressed one last time, “Do you want this?” and “Would you ever have any use for this?” meaning, “I really don’t want to think about what it would mean to let go of this, and it would make me feel so much better if I knew you would hold on to it. That way, I would, in a way, not have to let it go.” Not so much to hold on to the object, but to hold on to the memory, to pass it along to the next person.

Not that the possessions are the meaning, but that the possessions point the way to the meaning. Like an icon, through which one gazes in order to glimpse the presence of God.

Like the church, through which one lives in order to live with God.

Like our families, in which we live in order to live more fully with ourselves.

Like a grandmother, whose life means so much to a grandson, and so much else to his daughter.

It occurs to me that, in the midst of the sadness of Daddy Monk and Twila’s move away from the mountains, I have never been happier.

Note: I have been trying all morning to post the images of the paintings, but Blogger is being stubborn. I decided to go ahead and post the text, and try again later to upload the images.