Friday, June 30, 2006

Going on Sabbatical

The Eagle and Child is going on a few days sabbatical -- I plan to be back online sometime around July 13 or so. In the meantime, feel free to browse the archives, check out the links to some of my friends, look at my Librarything books, or simply carry on discussion in the comments.

Look forward to picking up after some time of R&R

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Off the Shelf: The Fourth Turning

Last weekend, I had a surprise visit from Ed Eubanks -- and as we caught up, he recommended a book: The Fourth Turning. Never being one to pass on an opportunity to indulge in biblio-idolatry, I scoured the bookstores until I found it (Score one for Barnes and Noble).

I cracked it open last night while Tammy watched So You Think You Can Dance (far more entertaining than American Idol, I must say). The thesis makes me tremble. Here's the gist -- patterns of human history run in roughly 80-100 year cycles, broken into 4 parts (roughly the age of a generation). These 4 parts are: the High, the Awakening, the Unravelling, and the Crisis. The high is a period where social fabric is woven, institutions are strenghtened, and a sense of order is established. The Awakening is a time of birth of new ideas and spiritual energy. The Unravelling begins the process of cynicism and world weariness regarding the institutions and ideas of the previous two eras. Finally the Crisis is the bone shaking event that shatters the social fabric and reworks it, laying the ground for a new order.

Here's how the authors map out the last century or so:
1929-1945: Crisis (economic collapse and international instability leading up to the second World War)
1945-1965: High (American industrial and political dominance in the wake of WW2)
1965-1980ish Awakening (interest in new ideas, spiritual renewal, prophetic statements against the sins of the culture like racism, pentecostal awakening)
1980's-2000ish Unravelling (deepening cynicism, "me decade", increase in decadence)

Which means that we're now poised for the fourth turning -- turning from Unravelling to Crisis. Now remember, this was written in 1997. In 2001 we had 9/11 and events have been travelling ever faster as the global crisis with Islamic fundamentalism escalates. Additionally the fuel crisis propels us closer to a financial brink. The book didn't claim to predict what the Crisis might be, only that it would come and somewhere by 2010, we'd be in the thick of it.

Now, this may seem all nice and clever how they parse these eras of history -- but does the cycle really hold? The authors go all the way back to the Renaissance and trace the cycles of High, Awakening, Unravelling, and Crisis. It's pretty extraordinary.

I'm not sure how much to buy right off the bat, but it is certainly provocative reading. I'll come back to this over the next few weeks and fill you all in as I digest.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Reading the Puritans isn't always fun

This post's title may ellicit a sarcastic "You don't say" from many -- after all the Puritans are difficult to read, and the prose of some can be as dry as a diet rice cake. Others wear you down with their relentless logic-ing and illustrations. But I love the puritans for their passion, their heart, and their desire to take every thought captive. I've talked earlier about Thomas Watson as one of my favorites, and I'm working through his wonderful volume on the Lord's Prayer.

But this quote is just a gut punch, isn't it: “A holy life speaks louder than all the anthems and praises in the world. Though the main work of religion lies in the hearts, yet when our light so shines, that others behold it, we glorify God. When our lives shine, his name shines in us. The Macedonians used one day in the hear to wear the picture of Alexander set with pearl and costly jewels; so when we carry the picture of Christ about us in our holy example, we bring honor to God’s name”

That from a section talking about the Petition "Hallowed be thy name" -- when we ask God to make His name holy, it is incumbent upon us who claim His name that we strive for holiness. How very humbling; how very short I fall. No the Puritans aren't always fun to read -- but they're good to read.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Making a difference: Microlending through Kiva

Readers of the Eagle and Child may have seen my earlier posts touching on the idea of microlending (see post 1 and post 2)

Microlending is the concept of making very small loans to mom and pop type entrepreneurs in third world countries (think this size: a fruit stand seller who needs $500 to build another stand and stock it). Most banks don't handle such small loans, and yet this is a fine way to encourage economic development in the third world. There's been some discussion on whether this is a viable model for extending economic aid.

Some of the challenge is that until recently -- most microlending was done much like other large efforts -- we contribute to a foundation or fund and the managers of the foundation decide to make loans based off those contributions. What is lacking is the personal stake for the individual who wants to microlend.

Enter Kiva (thanks to Michael Kruse who tipped me off to Kiva -- I can't seem to find his last story on his Kiva loan, so instead I'll link to this Kiva story from The Orlop). The innovation that Kiva provides is this -- they work through organizations to screen loan applicants and then present the applicants to potential lenders via the web. You as an individual can sign up to microlend to an individual in the third world country. Kiva facilitates person to person lending. You can lend as little as $25 or as much as you want. You can pick the projects and regions that interest you and you will receive email updates from the field.

I like this approach because it puts a face on the work. Not being ones to be left out, Tammy and I put our money where my mouth has been and we decided to lend a modest amount through Kiva. I chose a gentleman in Uganda who is rebuilding his home in a more stable neighborhood where he can get a better job.

Now here are some great benefits -- the loan that I helped to make will cycle through the economy several times (the gentleman used it to buy supplies and hire help -- it was not siphoned off by corrupt governments). The loan helps people who are working their way up -- it is not a handout. In Uganda, the loans are administered through a network called Life in Africa which provides community accountability and support and encourages entrepreneurship. Thus we're contributing to the greater stability of a region that is very unstable. Finally, it has driven me to learn more about Uganda and to pray for this gentleman and his family.

Not bad for a modest loan. And the best part is, when I get paid back, I can lend to someone else, thus furthering economic development in the third world.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, June 26, 2006

Resources for Revival: Bill Bright on Fasting

See the Call to Fasting and Prayer

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matthew 6:16-18

If we're going to fast and pray, we must be wise. The book Fasting Can Change Your Life contains interviews with many leaders talking about how fasting has been a part of their ministry. One interview I'm immediately drawn to is Bill Bright's. Dr. Bright had a practice of participating in 40 day fasts in which he would pray for world revival. And what has happened? His ministry Campus Crusade for Christ has blossomed into one of the largest mission sending agencies in the world and they have copied the Jesus Film into hundreds of different languages as an evangelistic tool. Dr. Bright shared 4 principles of fasting in his interview:

1) "First, I set a specific objective. If the Lord leads us to fast, He will usually burden our hearts with an objective. We should prayerfully ascertain what that is so that our efforts may be focused. My major focus is not for national and world revival and the fulfillment of the Great Commission." Brothers and sisters, our focus ought not be just the renewal of the Presbyterian church, but an awakening. We should focus first on awakening within our own congregations and cities, and then awakening across the nation.

2) "Second, I prepare myself spiritually to seek God's face, not His hand. The very foundation of fasting and prayer is repentence. Unconfessed sin hinders our prayers. In Scripture God always requires His people to repent of their sins before He will hear their prayers. So with God's help I search my heart to make sure there is no unconfessed sin in my life." This is a powerful reminder -- we don't fast and pray on behalf of the sins of others. This discipline will inevitably shine the searchlight of the Holy Spirit upon the dark recesses of our own souls. We will have to face up to our secret thoughts, prides, wraths, careless words, and little idolatries. Let us look at the logs in our own eyes as we enter this season of fasting and prayer.

3) "Third, I prepare myself physically. We should not rush into a fast..." Here Bright gives instruction on preparing for long fasts -- however I'm suggesting we focus on simple day-long fasts. Even so, we need to prepare. Drink plenty of water. For those who are physically unable to fast from food for health reasons, perhaps you'll consider fasting for something else (a number of pregnant women in our congregation are fasting from electronic media). When you feel the pang of loss from whatever it is you're fasting from, take that as an opportunity to pray to God for strength and focus -- and to thank God for His provision for you. Realize that this is the Holy Spirit's training ground for growing the fruit of peace, patience, and self-control in your life.

4) "Fourth, I ask the Holy Spirit to enable me to experience a meaningful fast as I seek God's face. He honors a humble and contrite spirit". Fasting is not something that we do to curry God's favor or love. Rather it is a discipline of obedience through which the Holy Spirit works on us and through us.

To help guide our prayers, here is an excerpt from the Book of Reformed Prayers -- a prayer from the Westminster Directory of worship of 1647"

"O God,
who hast so greatly loved us,
and mercifully redeemed us;
give us grace that in everything
we may yeild ourselves,
our wills and our works,
a continual thankoffering unto thee;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen"

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, June 23, 2006

So glad they agree with me

I'm back from GA -- and I'll have more thoughts and commentary later (I hope). However, just a quick return to an old theme. I picked up World Magazine last night and found Roberta Green Ahmanson's article on the religion of ancient Egypt. She followed a theme that I've been hitting on all along -- that there are hints of truth even in the pagan myths of old -- their stories point to the true story of God's redemption through Jesus Christ.

Additionally, a study of ancient Egypt gives great insight into the stories of the Old Testament. Just remember you saw it here first!

So, for this friday, check out some of my previous Egyptology posts:
Ancient Egypt and the Exodus -- what really happened
Continuing Education, a course on ancient Egypt
Russell's Egyptology Lens on Squidoo

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Gruntled Center -- I'm the Eagle and Child

I've returned from GA -- but here is the reflection that I had planned for two days ago -- I believe the thoughts still hold.

I was walking with a friend who stopped in the atrium of the Sheraton to speak with a bearded teddy bear of a man who was tapping away at a laptop. As they wrangled over the intricacies of the PUPS report, I inserted myself into the conversation, introducing myself as Russell Smith (yes, I am indeed an incurable schmoozer – I like people and find them very interesting)

He introduced himself as Beau Weston and then told me he wrote a weblog called The Gruntled Center. My eyes brightened and I grasped his hand saying “You’re Gruntled Center? Hello, I’m the Eagle and Child”. He knew who I was, for we’ve been reading each other’s blogs for about half a year now. This connection was made thanks to yet another blog, The Reformed Angler (also known as Dennis Hancock), who from time to time links to our deep and earth moving musings. Neither of us has met Dennis face to face, but we both like him and enjoy his writing. What followed was an hour and a half conversation about our interests, cultural analysis, books, and the Presbyterian church.

This is but one instance where blogging has affected my experience at this GA. I wrote earlier about meeting bloggers who served on committee with me. I’ve had people catch me over the past few days commenting on The Eagle and Child (“So you’re the one who didn’t like our amendment” and “Interesting things you said about the Stated Clerk not being a pope” and “I think I like my career future too much to blog like you do”).

Thus I ask “How is blogging affecting the shape of this GA?”

Dennis Hancock speculated that this GA is the year of the blogger. Hans Cornelder has been featuring bloggers regularly on Presbyweb (one of the fine news digests for Presbtyerians). Bloggers have affected national events: from exposing sloppy reporting on Dan Rather’s team to shaping the course of the Presidential election to creating buzz in national marketing campaigns. Blogs are now on the scene as a force for extending conversation.

Seth Godin, in his e book Who's There talks about different types of blogs: the cat blog (where the writer talks exclusively about personal things, like his cat’s antics), the boss blog (aimed at distributing information to a particular group), and the viral blog (where the writer wants to spread ideas to a broad audience). To Seth’s taxonomy, I might add the journalistic blog (which aims to report the stories that are not being told). The challenge for the blog reader is to discern the purpose of a given blog.

For instance, I consider The Eagle and Child to be a viral blog – when I write about military chaplains, it is because I care about military chaplains and their service to courageous men and women who put their lives on the line every day, and I want you to care about those very chaplain. When I write about the Trinity paper, it’s because I’m concerned about the vague conflation of names of God with metaphors that describe God’s characteristics, and I want you to be concerned. I make no pretense of masquerading as an objective reporter. I report buzz, rumor, opinion, stories, and bits of whimsy that tickle my fancy and that I care about. This blog is editorial and opinion, not objective reporting.

The point is that we have to be smarter readers of blogs – we have to listen to hear the point of view of the author, we have to learn to discern fact from opinion, we have to be active readers, rather than simply accepting everything we read on the same level. We also have to understand that blogging is simply an extension of the conversation – it is a way of people connecting online to enhance the face to face connection. It is a means of bringing more voices to the table.

But blogging is not a replacement for traditional news media. Nor is it a replacement for careful reasoned discussion and debate. Nor is it a replacement for face to face personal relationship. Nor is it meant to be the final analysis of the author. Nor is it a forum for pouring out deep private experiences (though there are those who have not figured this out yet – A good general rule of thumb – if you wouldn’t share your thoughts with a total stranger you just meet on the streetcorner, then it’s probably not appropriate for sharing on a weblog).

So friends, the question is out there – Is blogging actually shaping the face of this GA – your thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

PS I’m drafting this during the GA Nominating Committee’s presentation of candidates for standing committees. There are about a dozen or so floor nominations, which is slowing down the process a bit. I just stood up and looked about my section – there are at least 9 games of solitare going on. Just thought you’d want to know.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Call for Fasting and Prayer

In the past few hours, I have discerned with greater clarity my way forward in the new world that has been thrust upon the Presbyterian Church.

When I return on Sunday, I will join with my congregation in worship, in which we will begin a preaching series on the Lord's Prayer. I long to raise my voice in praise with my brothers and sisters at Covenant-First. I eagerly await soaking in the Word with our congregation. And I will invite them to join me on Monday for a day of fasting followed by corporate prayer together at the church at 6pm.

And I will invite them to join me in that discipline every Monday following.

When we pray, we will not pray against those with whom we disagree. Rather, we will repent of our own sin -- sins of pride, posessiveness, acquiescence to the prevalant culture of consumerism and self-indulgence. We will repent of apeedy condemnation and wrath and disdain. We will repent of how quick we are to anger and how slow to grieve. We will repent of our own idolatries and we will beseech the Lord for grace. We will call out for sanctifying grace, illuminating grace, strengthening grace. We will cry out that God might lead us to depend upon his Holy Spirit rather than upon our own designs. We will pray that God might give us the grace to glorify Jesus Christ in all that we do.

And we will praise. We will praise God for his manifold works -- his unique design of each person in His image. We will praise God for providence, though at times it is painful to us -- for we know that all things work to the good for those who are in Christ Jesus.

We will fast -- for some that will be a fasting from food, for others that will be a fasting from certain delights (reading, television, media, etc). When we feel the pang of the lack -- then we will quietly in our hearts pray to God. We will let our fasting be a discipline to teach us self-control and self-denial. We will hope, by God's grace and the power of the Spirit, that this discipline will develop within us the fruit of the Spirit -- which includes love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.

For those who cannot corporately gather, we will invite them in their homes to set aside some time for prayer -- that we all may be of one accord as we go before the Father's throne.

And I invite them to join me every Monday following in this discipline of fasting and prayer.

I intend this not as a legalistic excercise -- God will not love us any more than He already does for participating in this exercise. I will likely falter in my commitment to the discipline, for I am weak. But to this I fell called.

I invite you, the readers of the Eagle and Child, to join me in fasting and prayer -- not necessarily for the PCUSA, but that Jesus Christ might be glorified in our lives together. If you will join us -- please let me know in a comment on this blog -- I will transfer your name to the bottom of this post as I am able.

Soli Deo Gloria

Russell B. Smith

Keening for the Presbyterian Church?

I didn't post yesterday -- I had one written and planned, but I had no heart for it. It was indeed a good post -- perhaps I'll share it another day. But everything has changed.

I knew it was coming, and still it felt like a gut punch. We watched as strategy after strategy fell -- first the substitute motion fell, then the motion to refer, and then passage of the PUPS report. We held hands and prayed -- a weak strain of Kum Bay Yah arose from those who truly believe this action would bring peace. I was unable to lift my voice to join them. I left the room, embraced some friends, and went to register my official dissent with the decision.

Since then, I've heard from across the country and within this assembly what can only be described as Keening -- that Irish custom of mourning the dead through loud wails and cries of "Why did you have to die". It is a custom that is only practiced at the wake -- once the soul had left the body (lest it wake the Devil's hounds and they sieze upon the soul). There are those who believe that the cumulative actions of this General Assembly ammount to the Spirit having left the Presbyterian Church -- They believe we are Ichabod. And they keen for the church that they have loved.

Honestly, I'm not sure what to think. I need to get home to my family and spend time with our congregation and pray and soak in the word with the people that I love. With our elders and our congregation members and our friends, we will search the scriptures and seek the Spirit and listen to our evangelical brothers and sisters.

But this much I do know -- we who are evangelical christians must stick together. We must learn from the crises of the past -- we must learn from the divisions sown by the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies. Brothers and sisters, please read this article by John Frame and learn from the mistakes of the past. We need to take a cue from our brothers and sisters in the more evangelical Presbyterian denominations who issued a call for tolerance in discourse with one another.

I fear that the PCUSA may be irrevocably broken -- perhaps this will be the precursor to revival, perhaps this will be the precursor to judgment. But let us evangelicals be in this together.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, June 19, 2006

Presbypalooza -- Whatever happened to the Trinity

I’m writing just after having voted against the Trinity Paper presented by the Office of Theology and Worship. This paper has kicked up considerable controversy because of its very subtlety – in the opinion of many, the paper blurs our understanding of the very names of the Triune God whom we worship. I have some serious concerns about this paper, and I was in support of a substitute motion that would have referred the paper back to the Office of Theology and Worship for a further two years of input from churches.

By a very narrow margin (thirteen votes, if I have my numbers right), the Assembly voted to approve the paper.

Quite honestly I don’t know what this does for the church. I wonder if people will get the difference between receieving a paper and approving a paper (one ammendment changed the language so that the Assembly technically didn't approve the paper) – I have heard many say that this Trinity paper will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – that we will no longer be an orthodox Christian church. Have we indeed slipped into some kind of neo-gnosticism?

I will say this – I am very, very concerned.

And so I affirm my friends
I believe in God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I trust in God's soveriegnty and that out of this troubling development, His glory may yet increase.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Excursis -- Meeting Great People

Something I've enjoyed about this GA is meeting some gracious Spirit-filled folks who are passionate about exalting Jesus Christ.

Let me tell you about Terry. Terry Van Wyn serves on the same committee that I serve on -- indeed, he's been blogging about it (with much greater depth and precision than I've been blogging with).

Now get this for providence -- Yesterday lunch, I was checking out Presbyweb's list of Bloggers covering the GA (I still have yet to see you, Apostle John - you'll have to help me figure out how to find you). I came across Terry's site (and Andy Moye's site who also sits on our committee). When we returned from lunch break, I immediately started a conversation with Terry and got to know him a little bit (I also had the chance to catch up with Andy, but the meeting was underway already, and we really didn't get to talk in depth). After our very long meeting, Terry and I got together to have a beverage.

He told me wonderful stories of God at work at his church in Iowa. He went on the web and showed me his church's "wall of miracles" -- reports of God's astounding work in the lives of the congregation. He told me of a commitment that each member of the congregation pray for at least 3 people they know in the community -- either that they would come to know Christ as Lord and Savior or that they would move closer to Christ. He told me of their outreaach to hurting children. I sat in awe of his dependence upon the Spirit, His desire that Jesus Christ be exalted, and his trust that God would provide.

So far as I know, Terry isn't affiliated with any of the so called "affinity groups" -- he describes himself as a missional Christian: meaning that he's called by God and sent where God has placed him. I would tell you more, but I also sensed his humility and don't want to boost his ego too much (Russell writes with a wicked grin).

Brothers and Sisters -- here we see a fundamental truth about the body of Christ. Beyond the political battles and apart from the institutional wrangling of the franchise, there are plenty of folks doing the day to day work of discipleship, mission, and glorification of Christ in the small things.

Thanks, Terry, for being a bright spot in my experience of GA. May Chirst be exalted by your witness.

Soli Deo Gloria


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Presbypalooza -- Winds of Change

Are there winds of change afoot? Certainly in the theological conversations, I'm hearing troubling things. Apparently the committee considering the report on the Trinity has amended the report to refer to Jesus as "an image of God" as opposed to "the image of God." (Russ note -- this is different from mankind being made "in the image" of God -- there is a difference from being the image and bearing the image).

But that's not the kind of change I'm talking about -- it's a change that bodes ill for the institution. I've had several people comment that the official staff members are not receiving the deference that they had received in years past. I've been told that once upon a time, when our Stated Clerk came in the room, there was an air of gravitas. When he or his staff made their pronouncements, most committees basically functioned as rubber stamps.

Things are a bit different this year. Our committee, after some extensive discussion, recommended disapproval of the proposed Per Capita overture (see the fine summary by another committee member). Then today, we've spent the whole day discussing the Overtures pertaining the Montreat conference center. Our first decision was to disapprove the COGA's recommendation to close the center -- however, we're not done with the issue yet. Don't start celebrating until the final word is written, you Montreat fans!

I've heard buzz from other committees too that the official staff isn't getting their way -- and if they are, it's an uphill battle. We even got a sense of this in former Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase's testimony to our committee -- he contrasted a church that is interested in institutional preserveation with a church that is interested in missional action empowered by the Holy Spirit. I'm with him -- see my posts from last year on Renewal (post 1 post 2) to get a feel for the difference.

Now I know that I for one have intended no disrespect toward our staff -- I respect them and I'm thankful for their work. But make no mistake -- Clifton Kirkpatrick is our employee, not our pope. And it seems that this General Assembly is starting to reflect that understanding.

Could it be that the winds are blowing us away from the idolatry of institutional preservation. Could it be that we're getting the idea that the world is flat? Could it be that we're starting to see that engagement is more than treating churches as branch offices or franchise holders? I don't know -- but I'd sure be interested in hearing what other folks here on the ground have to say.

Soli Deo Gloria


PS -- special thanks to Presbyweb for their excellent coverage of this GA and for the ever growing list of GA bloggers -- I commend you for your courage in acknowleging the new media!

Excursis -- Things the PCUSA is doing right

One of the great blessings is being able to connect with mission folk from all around the world. Some of our least recognized missionaries in the PCUSA are our military chaplains.

This afternoon, I saw one of our Navy Chaplains having lunch by herself -- being the gregarious soul that I was, I asked if I could join her -- her name is Victoria Kelly. I found her to be passionate about her relationship with Jesus Christ. Her testimony about how God got hold of her and called her to ministry made me feel very confident that this was a woman who glorfied Jesus in her ministry and who cared deeply for our military personnel.

I know that there are some in our circles who believe that we shouldn't have military chaplains -- they think that any involvement with the military is an endorsement of war and oppression. To my mind, it is a great blessing that when we ask our young men and women to put their lives on the line for our country, we provide chaplains who are available for spiritual counsel and encouragement. In our congregation, we pray regularly for our military chaplains and we're proud of them. Having had the chance to get to know some of our chaplains, I can assure you, they are fine people and worth our encouragement and support.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, June 16, 2006

Presbypalooza day 2 - Committee Work Begins

My report from the trenches today -- I've been assigned to Committee 3 General Assembly Procedures. Our hot button issues are the Montreat Historical Archives and the Per Capita Issue.

However, one of the great pleasures was receiving the narrative report of outgoing moderator Rick Ufford-Chase. Rick and I have different perspectives on particulars of theology and practice. However I share his love of mission and his heart for evangelism. I'm excited by his passion for engaging people where their gifts are and inviting them to live into Ephesians 2:10 "For we are God's good workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (this coming just after the glorious passage about justification by faith alone).

In Rick's report, he expressed concern for those who would tear apart the church and dismay at the violence we would do to one another as Christians. But then he highlighted some areas of hope for the future:

1) Missional development within congregations where we consider every member a missionary. Such missional development doesn't see people as "staffing" for church committees, but ponders how to develop within each individual a deep passionate love of Jesus Christ.

2) Openness to immigrant fellowships and multi cultural fellowships -- this seems to be a running theme of the GA, as that was one of the issues on the floor from last night's moderator election

3) Engaging a new wave of leadership at all ages. Don't just ask people to fill committees -- identify specific gifts that match up with specific mission needs. Be more ad hoc and more in the moment.

The thrust of his comments was that we need to move away from institutional preservation and move toward Holy Spirit empowered ministry. Then his report lists several recommendations for moving forward -- Rick writes as follows:

This new kind of church will look a little different, because it will be all about encouraging Presbyterians to constantly seek to live their faith in the world. It’s clear to me that this kind of mission can’t be done by proxy. The energy of this emerging generation, if it is to be sustained, will demand a greater level of commitment from all of us. Their patience will quickly wane if they do not see a clear, unequivocal desire in all of us to live changed lives because of who Jesus calls us to be.

Many of the most exciting expressions of the movement of God’s spirit have been on the margins of the institution of church. We would be wise to be attentive to those places on the margins. For instance:

- What if our Christian education programs were transformed into lifelong spiritual formation, providing consistent, theologically grounded biblical study to anchor each Presbyterian’s growing experience in mission in their communities and in the world? What if that kind of formation was the very center of our life together as church?

- What if we treated the Presbyterian colleges and universities, and our Presbyterian campus chaplains at other schools, as genuine partners? Perhaps they could provide real renewal for our church, renewal that would come from a clear commitment to use the college experience as the best time to nurture young adults into the vocation of living their faith in Jesus Christ.

- What if we developed new leadership academies to work cooperatively with our seminaries to teach our pastors, commissioned lay pastors, and members the leadership skills they will need to create the missional and multicultural church?

- What if the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association and all of its related facilities would become the hands-on, outdoor classroom for students of a new eco-theology that will inspire the next generation of Presbyterians to give their lives to the care of God’s creation?

- What if we were to reach out to the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel, and ask how we might better support our chaplains as they minister to the young adults who are serving in the military?

- What if we built on the partnership we’ve begun with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship to develop the Colombia Accompaniment Program, encouraging hundreds of Presbyterians to become involved in nonviolent direct intervention work in situations of violence, and uniting Presbyterians around a common commitment to stand, together with the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, against the increasing insecurity and violence that characterizes our world?

- What if our congregations tested every new passion we pursue against God’s call to us from Scripture, and what if we sustained that passion through a sacred covenant to pray for one another? Imagine the unbelievable energy we could discover as we step up ourselves to pursue our passions instead of waiting for a professional class of church workers to do it for us?

Reporting from Presbypalooza

Soli Deo Gloria

The Moderator Election

So I was there -- other bloggers have beat me to the story. Check out the posts about our new moderator at The Church for Starving Artists and Quotidian Grace and the Presbyterian bloggers website.

Now here's my take -- we have a good moderator who is friendly to the evangelical wing of the church. This is the first time since Fahed Abu Akel's election that I've seen evangelicals breathe easy after an election.

The questions from the floor were polite and subdued -- there was one direct question about the ordination of self-affirming gays and lesbians.

But the most important question, to my mind, was from my friend Michael Carey of Central Florida Presbytery -- asked about their understanding of whether Jesus Christ is the only Savior, or but one way. Kerry Carson gave a direct and affirming Yes, as did Tim Halverson. Joan made it clear that Jesus was the only way, but that she was willing to grant God a wide degree of lattitude in how He applied the work of Jesus. Then Deborah Block came out with the statement that "the lamps are many, the light is one"

Other telling moments -- Halverson's seizing on the fact that our denomination bemoans membership loss, but before this august assembly, there are only 2 overtures dealing with evangelism!

And Props to Lydia Efimba, the Ecumenical Advisory Delegate from the Presbyterian Chruch of Cameroon -- she brought out the truth that now evangelism moves from the churches of Africa to America! (Check out this post and this post that run along the same theme of the ascendancy of Christianity in Africa)

Tomorrow -- committee work begins!

Soli Deo Gloria

PS -- perhaps we need to get the presbybloggers on the ground to meet up? When's a good time?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Presbypalooza -- day 1

We all arrived safe and sound for Presbypalooza 2007! That’s right, General Assembly. While the media will cover the big shaking events and decisions, I’m going to try to call attention to those things that are under the radar or just plain interesting to me.

Today was a day of orientation and gathering. I wandered the exhibit hall with all the hawkers of books, partisans for causes, and mavens for mission. And there I began to see one of the great things about Presbypalooza – the network of Presbyterians renewing their friendships. Behind all the contention, commotion, collusion, confrontation, and consternation – behind all the politics, prayers, pundits, pressure and pugilistics – behind all the activity that is General Assembly, we see a reunion of friends from across the country – partners in mission who seek to bring God glory.

There in the exhibit hall, I found Don Dawson – director of both the World Mission Initiative and the New Wilmington Missionary Conference. We caught up about what the Conference will be like – we put our heads together about missions – we talked about his daughter and son-in-law Rachel and Michael who were members of our congregation (and who spent the last year in Slovakia as missionaries). The New Wilmington Mission conference is special to our congregation – we’ve sent people for several years and it has always been a time of renewal around mission, in depth study of the Bible, and sweet fellowship. And here I am reconnecting with old friends from Conference.

During the Commissioner’s orientation, I ran into Michael Carey, Pastor of Satellite Beach Pres and the brainchild behind Purpose Driven Presbyterians. Michael has been a friend and encourager to me and to our congregation for several years – and we were able to catch up and share news about old friends.

While searching for food, I ran across Jim Cook – formerly of First Pres Orlando – Jim shepherded me through the ordination process, going before the committee on preparation with me. Though Jim and I have some different theological perspectives, I have a deep respect for him as a minister and administrator – and seeing him was a sweet surprise.

I met a member of the board of directors for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance – and I told him how our church sent our first mission team through PDA this year – and our people came back powerfully touched. I could go on – friends from Cincinnati and friends from across the country.

So those of you who are at home – that’s what you don’t hear through the news reports – the people to people connection. From a thousand little conversations, dozens of ministries, initiatives, and activities will be born. Articles, essays and manifestos will be worked out through face to face collaboration. Old friendships will be renewed to the benefit of congregations all across the country. It is I Corinthians 12 in action.

Soli Deo Gloria

150 Million Dollars

150 Million Dollars!

No, that's not what Dr. Evil is asking from the Presbyterian Church -- that's the gift that Santa Claus just gave.

Santa Claus, in this case, is Businessman Stan Anderson. He's a member of Central Presbyterian Church in Denver. He and his business partner just announced that they are giving 150 million dollars to the Presbyterian Foundation to be distributed as grants to presbyteries for the purpose of church growth, new church development (particularly racial-ethnic churches) and congregational renewal.

He told the story of how his grandfather was a member of Central Pres -- the church nurtured the family through the depression. The church nurtured his family when his father became ill and had to stop working. Now it is time to give back. “We were poor but we were loved.” Anderson said, meaning first off God's love, but secondly His love through his people.

“I am his servant. And I will follow.” He said as he announced the gift -- using the image of loaves and fishes -- that from this gift, Anderson has faith that God will multiply the offering to transform the denomination.

Let us pray that our church can be faithful stewards of such a gracious gift!

Reporting from Presbypalooza

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I’m writing from the Atlanta airport waiting for my connecting flight to Birmingham for General Assembly – Presbydom’s very own State Fair complete with politicians, exhibits, judging contests, spectacles, and lots and lots of people selling stuff. Rather than the tilt-a-whirl action ride, we have the theolog-a-whirl of Presbyterian politics. I’m on pilgrimage to Presbypalooza, my friends.

But before I post later tonight on the events of the day, I wanted to share a bit about the journey. As I’ve written before, part of the adventure of travel is the trip – I love discovering the quirky, the local, the unusual. It’s one of the themes of the recent Pixar film Cars – a nostalgia for the grand old days of travel. I thought that such an ethos had been lost.

Then I found that the Atlanta airport has done something wonderful. On the passageway between Concourse T and Concourse A, they have installed an exhibit of sculpture by contemporary Zimbabwean sculptors. This line of massive works stretches down the center of the wide walkways, inviting travelers to disengage from the fast lane -- to avoid the moving sidewalks of efficiency, and to stroll among these megalithic sculptures from another land. Along the walls of that stretch are massive photos of life in Zimbabwe, making the otherwise bland walkway awash with color – contrasting nicely with the polished blacks and greys and muted browns of the sculpture.

Two of these sculptures capture the range of my experience – the first was titled “Water Spirit”. It was a low flat topped scultpture about four to five feet long. It depicted a serpentine woman with long flowing hair and flipper-like hands. Her vacant eyes stared up and her pursed lips was cut into a small frown – as though she were trying to suck some victim that was eluding her. It was haunting and didn’t feel safe – like the mermaids from Harry Potter or from Peter Pan – creatures of darkness in touch with dark things.

I forget the name of the second – it was a giant work of a man embracing a huge eagle, and the eagle embracing the man back. The eagle’s wings were spread out wide and it’s head hooked over the man’s shoulder. It suggested the intimate connection of humanity with the rest of creation – the concern that is deep within the heart that we ought to feel. I was strongly reminded of our role as bearers of the divine image who are stewards of the earth and all God’s good creations.

Now, whether you like my musings about the sculpture or not – consider this – the Atlanta airport has done something nice and original to make the journey an experience once again. They didn’t have to do it – the travelers are their prisoners while they await their next flight – and yet they did it. I wonder if Seth Godin would call this a Purple Cow? Kudos to the planners of this exhibit.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Off to General Assembly

Bright and early tomorrow morning I hop on a plane for Birmingham, AL for our Presbyterian Church General Assembly -- the biennial gathering of commissioners from all over the country to decide on policy, budget, and procedure for the Presbyterian Church USA.

For those not familiar with the Presbyterian way of doing things, a quick refresher. The presbyterian church is organized around rule by elders (the "presbyters"). Every congregation has ordained elders who are elected by the membership to lead (though the election is not meant as a representitive democracy -- it is a process of the members discerning and confirming a calling by God for the elder to serve). A minister is but one elder among many (though the minister is the one called to moderate the session -- that is the board of elders that runs the church).

Presbyterian churches are accountable to local governing bodies called Presbyteries -- where the leaders are (you guessed it) elders who have been appointed by their local congregations to serve. And guess what -- the General Assembly meeting consists of -- elders who have been selected from the presbyteries to serve. Sounds vaguely like the republic in which we live, no? That is why during the American Revolution, it was quipped in the British House of Commons: "America has run away with a Presbyterian parson"

So many elders gathered from all over the country -- means that the process for decision making is slow, messy, and confusing. And yet, somehow it works (more or less).

We have a number of contentious issues before us that threaten to divide the Presbyterian church. I'll probably touch on some of them in the next week of blogging (as I blog from Birmingham). However, I have great confidence that no matter what happens to the Presbyterian Church USA (whether prosperity or oblivion or tepid languishing), the Kingdom of God will be just fine. And that is a comforting thought

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Now Playing: Cars

Tammy and I took Sarah Grace to see Pixar's new release, Cars, on Saturday. It's a winner by far. When I first saw the previews, I thought it would be a terrible movie. I didn't get too much about the concept, but come on talking cars? That hasn't been believable since the old Speed Buggy cartoons!

Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by Cars. They had me early on by using racing star Richard Petty as the voice of "The King", the retiring champion racecar (remember, I used to live in NASCAR country, so all this stuff works for me) -- and then I heard the voices of the Magliozzi brothers (famous for their NPR radio show, Car Talk) as the main character's annoying sponsors. BANG right there I knew this movie was on to something -- NASCAR and NPR references in the same film.

The story is an old one: hotshot young up and comer gets stranded in a podunk small town where he rediscovers whats important. Pixar dresses up this familiar old line with lovable characters. The star, a racecar named Lightning McQueen, learns a nice lesson that he can't go it alone -- he needs a team of people in order to truly be a success. It's a lovely little visual parable of I Corinthians 12.

There's also a nice homage to the old pre-interstate days of travel -- those golden years in the 40's and 50's and 60's when travel was an adventure and every small town in america a potential treasure waiting to be discovered. The interstates made everything faster, but it also sucked the life out of hundreds of small towns all across the nation. We are losing the ability to slow down and enjoy what God has plopped right in front of us as we race to the bigger and better. As the film developed this theme, I felt touched -- I know dozens of those little towns that are wasting away because the interstate passed them by.

So, thumbs up from the Smith family.

And here's a spoiler for the best line in the whole movie: The redneck pickup truck, Mater (Tow-mater -- get it, he's a tow truck taking his name from a tow-mater -- I didn't think it was that funny either) is in the midst of having some real fun and he shouts out "I'm happier than a tornado in a trailer park!"


Friday, June 09, 2006

The Artist and the Jock

I call it the artist and the jock paradox. Artists, from all different fields, are stereotyped as disdainful of jocks – as though the athletic endeavor were some subhuman Neanderthal activity. Meanwhile, jocks are stereotyped as smirking at artists as out of touch nutcases. Of course this stereotype does not necessarily hold for those who are actually doing art and athletics -- it may be based more on the behavior of art lovers and athletic fans. In any case, we can see it in nascent form in the cliquish realm of high school and college: a mutual disdain.

In the church, we live with the reality of I Corinthians 12 – that God has given us all each to the other. This implies that God has given artists to the jocks and jocks to the artists. We each belong to the other. Indeed artists and jocks probably have the most to give to each other in terms of learning about discipleship in their wrestling with
* how to remain faithful in a subculture that glories in excess and indulgence
* how to have a Christlike humility while glory and accolades are being showered upon you for your accomplishments
* how to maintain the rigorous discipline each endeavor takes while still maintaining a spiritual discipline to nourish the soul
* how to push up to the very edge of competitiveness or artistic boundaries without going over the line.
* how to honor Christ in a way that doesn’t seem contrived or cheesy.

Indeed, the artist and the jock might find that there are great similarities in their field. Particularly around the concept of glory. There is a moment, a sensation when one is lost in the work – when the elements of the craft or trade seem to come together and for a few shining seconds, everything seems effortless. It might even feel transcendent or mystical, as though this moment might last for eternity – or at least wishing that it could. I know performing artists feel this moment – when all the rehearsal is forgotten and the movements are fresh in the moment – there’s a palpable connection with the other performers on stage. There’s an electricity that seems to emanate from the audience as you feel them with you and instinct kicks subtly directing every move, every gesture, every tone and inflection in your voice. Every pause becomes significant because of that moment. And that is a taste of glory. Athletes feel this too – when they sense their teammates and sense the position of the other team – when the shout of the crowd is drowned out, but the energy of there presence is there with you. The movements all click, you run on instinct and time crawls to a standstill. You would not choose to be any other place – it is though you are treading upon the center of the universe. That is a taste of glory. I anticipate that other artists feel this too in their own thrill of composition or applying paint to canvas or shaping materials or letting words flow forth. That hard to define moment, when everything is flowing – that moment often called the zone – that moment is a fleeting touch with glory. The rays of glory beam through in the creative process as something really good is happening. But for us humans it is only fleeting.

However, in that moment of glory lies the greatest temptation – for the temptation is to consider the glory a work of our hands, rather than a reflection of what has been given us. The temptation is to think of the glory as something we manufacture rather than a gracious gift as a reward for our hard work. Why is it, after all, that Homer and the ancients call out to the muses? For there is something that must be given – something intangible that when it shows up lends fire to the work of our hands. This intangible is God’s glory. God graciously lends his glory through what theologians call common grace (this is the idea that God’s truth, beauty, and goodness resound all through the universe – even to and through those who don’t recognize Him). Thus, an atheistic pagan creating a work of art will still not be able to completely shut out the possibility of God’s glory resounding through it.

On the field of athletics, the glory seems to come from the athlete himself – on stage from the performer – on canvas from the artist. In all these cases, the misidentification of the glory leads to idolatry and arrogance. The athlete becomes a “star” and indulges himself in many different things. The artist thinks himself “brilliant” and begins to break all kinds of taboos because he can. Thus, the seductive allure of glory – intensified because the athlete and the artist perform their works for audiences – threaten to undo both the artist and the jock. Is it any wonder why God might have said that the parts of the body cannot do without each other. We need the wisdom of others to promote the proper sense of humility and proportion as we deal with glory.

We were not made to do discipleship in isolation – we were made to do discipleship in community – in that way we can have identified for us sins to which we are blind – and we can learn to see God’s glory in whole new ways. All creation resounds with His glory – artists simply have one venue of calling our attention to that glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Book of Elites vs The Book of Life

Here’s an interesting convergence. I’m reading Thomas Watson’s book on The Lord’s Prayer in preparation for a 4 part sermon series on the Lord’s supper. Watson, in talking about the Fatherhood of God toward those who have been adopted and born again writes “The Wicked are dross…and chaff; but God numbers his children among his jewels…..He writes all his children’s names in the book of life….Among the Romans the names of their senators were written down in a book, patres conscriptii [the enrolled fathers]. God enrolls the names of his children, and will not blot them out of the register.”

Watson’s reference to the book of Roman Senators prompted me to take a closer look. He tells us that the Romans kept a book of the Senators, the great men of Rome whose names must be recorded. In much the same way, the ancient Egyptians kept king lists – an archive of the great men of history. Seti I has in his mortuary tomb a carving depicting him and his son Rameses II reciting a king list starting all the way back at Pharaoh Narmer (the first pharaoh of record, a couple of thousand years before Seti) and proceeding all the way up to Seti’s father Rameses I (with a few notable deletions of embarrassing pharaohs – we all want to omit the black sheep after all). These ancient rosters were for the elites – the high and mighty who were kings and rulers of the land.

The book of Life, as used in the New Testament, is different. The image is found primarily in Revelation – in chapter 13:8 we see the beast rising from the sea and seducing mankind away from proper worship of God “All the inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast – all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” Then In Revelation 21 we see the description of the New Jerusalem. God establishes the new temple and then in verse 27, we find this description of the new temple: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what it shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (see also Revelation 3:5 and Philippians 4:3 where Paul makes reference to this book of life). Quite simply, the book of life is not for social or political elites – but for the faithful, no matter what their class or origin.

While ancient pagan religions honored the elite – the powerful and clever and strong, Christianity honors the humble and the faithful. While pagan religions had imperatives to goodness based mainly upon philosophical notions, Christianity based its imperatives upon right relationship with the living God. So, we see ordinary people being honored in the Christian book of life not because they accrete honor to themselves, but because they gave honor away.

Soli Deo Gloria


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Thomas Watson on Prayer

I'm reading Thomas Watson's terrific book on the Lord's Prayer

Here's a keeper:

"Prayer is the gun we shoot with, fervency is the fire that discharges it, and faith is the bullet which pierces the throne of grace. Prayer is the key of heaven, faith is the hand that turns it....If a poor handycraftsman, who lives by his labour, has spoiled his tools so that he cannot work, how shall he subsist? Prayer is the tool we work with, which procures all good for us; but unbelief spoils and blunts our prayers, and then we get no blessing from God" (pg32)

All this from his meditation on the little "our" in "Our Father which art in heaven" -- the our makes it the prayer of personal faith and putting personal trust in a living God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mistaken Identities -- and the untold story of faith

If you've been awake at all this weekend, you've heard the sad story of mistaken identity. A number of Taylor University students were in a automobile accident, including Whitney Cerak and Laura VanRyn -- Whitney was presumed dead and Laura was presumed to be seriously injured and recovering in the hospital. Then, five weeks after the accident and Whitney's funeral (attended by 1,400 people) -- the coroner discovered a mistake. The girl in the hospital was Whitney, and the deceased girl was Laura.

The media has jumped on this story as a sad case of mistaken identity that has caused nothing but pain. See the USA today articles on the Mix up and on the ongoing investigation into the problems.

However, there is more to the story than the media is picking up. This is a powerful story of compassion, faith, and acceptance of suffering. Both the Cerak and the VanRyn families are solid christians. Check out this week's archive from the VanRyn's family blog. Notice that the VanRyn family has continued to surround Whitney with love and support. They continue to look to the scriptures for hope and comfort during what is a hellish time. Take a look at Lisa VanRyn's post from June 1 - the day after she and her family found out about the mix up -- she quotes Psalm 18 and then writes "This is our prayer this morning, as we continue to trust Jesus Christ our Savior. He is there for all of us and for you. God's Word is sufficient, no matter what your circumstance." -- the over 500 comments on the site show that this story has profoundly affected people all over the world.

Please, visit the VanRyn's blog and reflect on their faith in the midst of terrible suffering. Pray for their continued strength through their trial.

Soli Deo Gloria