In the Present Tense

November 4, 2010

For those sitting in darkness. . .

Filed under: Culture and the Bible, Present Truth, Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 3:34 am

A young friend of mine just sent me a message which included this: “I’ve been wondering why I’ve been wasting my time being unfulfilled in the Adventist church I’m in.” Not only do I hear this same sentiment from many young Christians of nearly every denomination–I spent many years of my life feeling exactly the same way.

It feels like there’s no point to it all. I used to ask myself why did I even care? In my case, not only did I not receive any positive reinforcement, I was repeatedly vilified. I was accused of virtually every possible sin-even once of borderline adultery. Oh, in that case, it was a clear instance of confusing me with a different teacher at summer camp.

Had the pastor–yes, it was my pastor who made the accusation–bothered to inquire, he would have discovered the truth. When the pastor made the accusation in front of several church members, my wife burst out laughing. She had been at camp with me, and even spotted the offending person’s behavior before I did.

Another pastor said my “existence” was a problem for the church. That was the first time I truly felt suicidal. I share this not to disparage the pastors involved, nor to stimulate sympathy. I just want those now feeling that sort of discouragement, those “sitting in darkness” that I have been there. Occasionally, I return there.

I have no magic answers. I will not offer texts that tell you to have patience. One saint said to me many years ago, “Never pray for patience. If you do, God will send you trials!”

All I can do is share my own experience.

My parents sent me to a boarding academy, with predictions that I would love it there. In fact, that’s what I anticipated. I arrived on campus expecting only the best. Instead, I experienced three years of nearly unremitting hell. Happily, I did meet the girl I later married there. But several faculty members attempted to break us up repeatedly.

Some thirty years later, I went to a class reunion (my wife’s experience is much different, and I went for her). Much to my surprise, someone whom I did not remember–he had been a freshman my junior (and last) year–told me how my treatment of him had been so radically different than the way other upper classmen treated him. I had been an encouragement to him.

I taught church school for more than a decade. Although I enjoyed the classroom, and my supervisors and students praised my teaching, not all parents and pastors agreed. Politics came into the scene, and often I had to move because of displeasing someone whose money or station gave them power.

I left one school in the midwest in the late 1970’s purged by one parent–whose children loved my classroom. There had been a young girl there “saved” from her insufficiently pious family–that’s how the pastor’s wife had phrased it. I did not agree, and did what little I could to help the girl reconcile. This brought me censure, and appeared not to help the girl.

Thirty years later I met this now grown woman in New York City, of all places. She came up to me and after identifying herself, she said, “You were the one who knew what they were doing to me, all those years ago.”

I sighed, and said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”

She shook her head, “You were the only one who saw. In fact, it took me years to realize what they had taken from me. What I had lost.”

We talked for a while. I asked her how she recognized me at a distance, my hair now being gray. “I recognized your laugh,” she said.

I could go on. I have many more stories. But the point is not about how wonderful I was. Because at the very times I was encouraging or helping others–often unknowingly–I was personally going through great discouragement.

All this has taught me to view this text in perhaps an unorthodox way :

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.

Phillippians 2:14-15

You probably have thought of this in reference to the world at large. But we all know that the Enemy works hardest in the church, because that’s where he can do the most damage. All churches are full of sinners, some of whom are “crooked and perverse.” And it’s doubly disturbing when we encounter them in the church. All I can say is, if God has put you in such a place, it must be because He needs your light in that part of His world.

It may be years before you realize who may have been guided to safety, kept from discouragement by your light in that dark place.

It may not be much, but it’s what I can offer.

October 12, 2010

First Principles

I apologize for the long delay between posts. I’ve been unbelievably busy.

 

This blog is for believers. If you don’t believe in God, there are other posts I’ll write just for your consideration. My friends know I don’t insist people believe what I do, but welcome honest questions.

But this one is just for those who believe in God, specifically the God of the Bible.  And I don’t intend to argue fine points here. Quite the opposite. I’m interested only in talking about broad truths. Not details about the six-day creation, or exactly the role of women. Though they are important, that’s not what I want to discuss.

My dear sister reminded me recently of something I shared with her some thirty years ago. She said it had spared her from many a strange doctrine. I know it has always served me well, so I share it here.

Many of the debates and issues which rage in the church through the years can seem quite confusing. Often both sides of the debate appear quite reasonable, or at least plausible. Sometimes neither one seems clear. Time and again I have found refuge in “First Principles.”

Jesus demonstrated this approach in the question regarding divorce. He was asked if men could divorce their wives, as Moses said. Note the subtle trap. “Do you agree with Moses? or are you heretical?” Rather than taking the bait, Jesus resorted to first principles. “In the beginning it was not so.”

If we believe in God, and that He communicated the important things to us through the Bible, then we cannot go wrong with first principles. Belief in first principles comes down to something this simple: When God created human beings and the earth they lived in, He knew what he was doing. Whenever we are confronted with a teaching that says to us, either implicitly or explicitly, “God didn’t know what He was doing,” then we know something is wrong with the teaching.

Let me give you another example. More than thirty years ago, a bunch of cassette tapes were circulating (for those under 25, think of them as podcasts) which declared that we should eliminate all oil and oily foods from our diet. Lots of conscientious and health-conscious people went about doing just that.

As a teacher and school principal at the time, a number of church members asked me my opinion. I said, “It can’t be right.” That surprised them. Some wanted to know my credentials as a dietitian or nutritionist– I had none. Many wanted to know how I could be so certain. For me it was a simple case. Fruits and nuts were part of the diet God gave man in Eden. Few things contain higher percentages of oil than nuts. So, “Did God know what He was doing when He gave us nuts to eat?” My answer had to be yes, God knew what He was doing, and that meant that the teaching about eliminating all oily foods couldn’t be true.

Another quick example. In grad school, Education students had to take a course titled “Comparative Education,” which explored the similarities and differences of education in various cultures. Since I was at Andrews University, my class was itself very international. One student was from Hong Kong, another from Egypt, a third from Thailand, yet another from the West Indies– and so on. One day during discussion, our Egyptian student, a young man, began to declare that the problem with education in the US and most of the West was “co-education.” Educating young men and young women in the same classes, he maintained, could only lead to immorality and corruption.

Since this was the late 1970’s (I know, I know, I’m really old), and the remnants of hippie culture dominated American campuses, it was hard to argue with the fellow. After his verbal volley, the teacher, instead of answering him, asked the class members to answer.  As each of my fellow students answered, it became increasingly clear that the main arguments they had were cultural– in other words, “In my country, we do it this way.” The debate was hardening, not resolving. Finally, the teacher looked at me.

“All I know to do is to go back to the Beginning,” I said. “In Genesis it’s clear  that Eden was the first school, Adam and Eve the first students, and God their teacher,” I continued. “That sounds like co-education to me. If that was God’s ideal design in the beginning, I don’t see how it can be ‘the problem’ today. We humans are sinful, and we have problems, so those problems show up in all our institutions. But unless we have clear direction otherwise, it seems to me that God’s first plan is still the best.”

I still believe this. If Eden was the perfect plan, then the closer we can approach to it, the better.  I believe in all things, God knew what He was doing. And so many, many questions of today that seem perplexing to some, seem much simpler to me. I will mention one are that I will take up in the future, and that’s the environmental movement. First principles have a lot to tell us about that.

As always, I welcome comments and questions. I have offered this because it has literally spared me many an anxious moment, and helped me navigate some of the trickiest currents we encounter in life. I commend it to you.

August 19, 2010

The Startling Conclusion

Resuming the stages of faith and leadership.

Somewhere along this journey comes– the Dark Night of the Soul II– which I simply call “Gethsemane.” Yes, Jesus had two dark nights of the soul, and as he told us, the servant is not greater than the master. We can expect no less– unless we short-circuit the process, and choose to stay at an earlier level. But if we choose growth, we will encounter a second dark night of the soul.

The First, like Jesus temptation in the wilderness, tempts us with easy choices. Indeed, in M. Scott Peck’s “The People of the Lie,” which is an examination of evil, Peck’s conclusion is that the real evil is making easy choices. Not only do I agree with it, it frightens me. Because I’m always tempted to make the easy choice.

When we get to the dark night of the soul II, to Gethsemane, we are overwhelmed with the sense of futility. We know who we are, we know our mission in life, but it seems that we will make the sacrifice and receive nothing in return. After a whole lifetime of seeking and struggling, is this all there is?

And the answer comes back, as it did for Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Perhaps our witness seems ineffective. The darkness appears stronger than our small candle. Like the flower that blooms unseen, we may think that we have lived in vain.

But of course the darkness can nevery overwhelm the light. We can never know which life we have touched that will have great results, and which would have not happened for our witness. And no flower ever blooms unseen. For the Father of all notes the fall of a sparrow, sees the light from a smoldering flax, and traces the thousands of tiny influences that lead a soul to salvation.

We live to Him and for Him, or we live for naught. And when we claw our way through Gethsemane, when we reach the conclusion “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours–” we come to the last stage: Unconditional Love.

The wrongs we have suffered no longer matter. The sacrifices shrink into insignificance. Having come into complete accord with God’s will, we can no longer hate anyone.

Now, I don’t claim to have inhabited this exalted state. At times, I think I may have visited. I have met others who certainly appeared to have attained this state.

One would think that, when a person attains this unconditional love, peace would result. And internal, spiritual peace does (once again, I have visited, not attained). But that does not mean that the world is at peace with us. Quite the contrary. For if you love everyone, then you also love my enemies, and I find that particularly upsetting.

It’s interesting that nearly every one of the Disciples died a violent death. What we know of their deaths, they approached them with peace in their hearts. They were not killed because they had done violence, but because their existence was a reproach to those around them.

When confronted with Christ, or with a truly Christian person, there are two basic reactions. We see this in the gospel. The Pharisees saw Christ, and said, “Why does he have to be that way?” The disciples saw Christ and said, “Why can’t I be like that?”

True saintliness almost always evokes both those extremes. We either aspire to be like that person, or to be rid of his or her offensive example.

And this leads to M. Scott Peck’s final dictum on these stages of development. Once again, they are:

I. Romance

II. Discipleship

III. Success

IV. The Inward Journey

V. The Outward Journey

VI. Unconditional Love

Peck said, when you are one stage ahead of those around you, they admire you. When you are two stages ahead of those around you, they are perplexed by you. When you are three stages ahead of those around you– they will kill you.

I was startled when I first heard this. But then I realized I had seen it again and again. Many, many church members get stuck in the first two stages. Those who are in Romance are horrified and frightened by someone embarking on the inward journey, with its Dark Night. For them, everything’s wonderful, so anyone struggling must be ‘losing his faith.’

For the person in Discipleship, with its earnest seeking to internalize all the rules and norms, someone embarking on the Outward Journey appears to be breaking all those rules. Worse, his very existence brings tough questions to the Disciple’s world view that are not easily answered, situations with which the Disciples’ rules simply cannot cope.

In both cases, the main remedy appears to be to simply cast out the troubling individual.  They will kill you.

There’s more, but this is enough for now.

August 11, 2010

Drums?

A young friend asks about drums, specifically a drum set in church or for worship.  I suppose we’ve made progress. No one seems to object to the guitar anymore. The short answer is that there will never be an end to people attempting to make lists of good and bad instruments, foods, books, ideas– what have you. It saves everyone the trouble of thinking about things, about making judgment calls. Just adhere to the lists, and you will be OK.

Of course, one big problem is that the lists change over time. At one point, the organ was considered taboo, since it had been associated with gladiatorial combat. Come to think of it, I’ve known quite a few churches where “Who gets to play the organ” battles were somewhat reminiscent of gladiatorial combat. But I digress.

Of course, all this,in Adventism, is predicated on one reference–although repeated in several places– to “shouting, with drums, music, and dancing,” that took place in Indiana in the Holy Flesh movement of the early 20th century.

It’s always interesting how these passages get parsed out. For example, rather than taking what happened as a whole, critics like to single out drums and dancing. It seems to me that shouting is a staple of certain types of preaching which is deemed quite acceptable. Nor have I seen any serious attempts to ban all music.

But why should that be? If all these things, “shouting, with drums, music, and dancing” were bad, why should some be banned and others accepted? I just don’t buy it.  I’ve posted this video before, but I think it bears repeating.

Does anyone seriously contend that this Nigerian carol is inappropriate? It is not the type of music I grew up with, but I cannot listen to it without being profoundly moved.

If Christ can cast demons out of human beings who were once their willing hosts, cannot inanimate objects be employed for His glory as well? Things are just things. What we do with them is what makes them a blessing or a curse.

Shouting, drums, music, and dance can be used to deaden the moral faculties and lead us into sin; or they can be used to the glory of God.

Legalism, on the other hand, is always deadly. At the GC session this summer, Pastor Paul Frederick from India addressed gathering with these words :”One of the most serious problems facing the Christian church today is legalism. It wrenches the joy of the Lord from the Christian believer. Nothing is left but cramped, somber, dull, and listless profession. Legalism is an obsessive conformity to an artificial standard for obtaining salvation. But when we are living by grace, we realize that everything we need in our Christian experience is a gift from God.”

There followed a performance of an Indian song praising God, accompanied by hand drums.

To this ear, it sounded both uniquely Indian and uniquely Adventist in the same way that “Mas Alla del Sol” sounds both uniquely Adventist and uniquely Mexican. And the drums added to that effect.

July 23, 2010

Stage V the Outward Journey

Filed under: Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 10:33 pm

At the completion of the Inward Journey, one feels a renewed sense of purpose, of identity.  Having survived the dark night of the soul, one feels newly energized. And with all this comes a feeling of responsibility, a sort of “survivor’s guilt.” Not really guilt, but a sense of obligation, like the apostle Paul describes himself, “a debtor.” We want to help others facing the dark night.

But the dark night has taught us that growth is not necessarily welcomed by all. Some will not want what we have to offer. Some will not be ready to receive it. Still others may not understand it. So the Outward Journey begins.

We begin to reach out, but carefully. An old proverb says “Knowledge is proud it knows so much. Wisdom is humble that it knows so little.” The new knowledge gained in the dark night has given us wisdom, has humbled us. Even though we know we have valuable answers, we also realize that not everybody is asking the questions to which we have found answers. And even some asking do not want the answers we have, true or not.

And that makes up much of the Outward Journey. Seeking those whom we can help, those we might help, those who will allow us to help. Finding out how and when our help will help.

Finding others who have made the Inward Journey and begun the Outward Journey can help. Those who have never experienced the Dark Night will not understand us, and it will be difficult for us to help them.

Just as everyone’s Inward Journey is at once typical and unique, so will be the Outward Journey. So we can learn from others who have gone or are going through the experience, but we cannot simply copy them.  That’s good and bad news.  We can benefit from the experience of others, but we must find our own way.  God does not repeat Himself, nor make any of us mere duplicates.  So the Outward Journey will be a continuing journey of discovery, as we explore ways to share our authentic selves with others seeking their own authenticity.

It will be, as John Ciardi once described writing poetry, “Not easy, but joyfully difficult.”

June 10, 2010

Growing in Faith III — Success.

Filed under: Evangelism, Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 1:01 am

The third stage in growth is Success. Everything works here.  Everyone loves you. You no lonfer nee a mentor. In fact, some may choose you as mentor

The problem here is the temptation to stay here. This produces a “hollow three.” Sadly, many do choose to stay here.

You’ve seen the ones who stay here. Many an evangelist remains here, comfortable with shallow answers as long as they produce results. The fact that  people who contribute to the evangelist’s success don’t stay long in the church, nor do they grow, is considered the fault of the local church or pastor. “I got them here, now it’s up to you to keep them,” is a recognizable attitude.

Success also tempts the local pastor of a large church with impressive buildings and multiple ministries to avoid “rocking the boat.” But I always remember Sister Theresa’s reminder that “Our goal is not success. Our goal is faithfulness.”

Success feels good, but it is not our goal. It is not the goal of spiritual growth. It is one step along the way, but it is not our destination. You may have heard that “the good is the enemy of the best.” So it is with the success stage of spiritual growth. It is good, but it is not the best. And, being so good, we are tempted to rest in the hammock of success, and let the world go by.

Jesus had success in his ministry, and indeed the devil tempted him to accept success. But the path to salvation, the path to spiritual growth, lies in a different direction.

We have three more steps to go. And more than one bump in the road.

June 8, 2010

Growing in Faith II — Discipleship

Filed under: Law and Legalism, Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 3:23 pm

The second stage in this critical journey is Discipleship. Someone at this level often seeks a mentor, and is very conscientious about their faith. This is often a sort of ‘fundamentalist’ stage, where everything is black and white. In the first stage, Romance, everything was beautiful. In this stage, everything is right or wrong.

Some note that many young believers who do not abandon faith become very legaistic. That’s natural, as this Discipleship stage is an indicator of growth. So is abandoning faith, in an odd way.

Remember that at this stage, everything is black or white. It is only natural that some, seing a lot of tares, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of imperfection in the church, should choose to abandon it altogether. They, too, are entering a Discipleship phase– looking for something better. Those who truly seek will surely find.

Of course, some abandon faith because it represents the easy path in today’s society, and the easy choice is seldom a good one. On the other hand, there are those who never progress beyond the Discipleship stage. They can be just as destructive as those who become opponents, because these permanent Disciples can become mentors for others, thus stunting their growth.

The most important concern is continued growth. Growth is painful, but things that cease to grow die. So when we see someone in the Discipleship phase, those of us who have progressed from that position should offer assistance and affirmation. If we simply condemn them, we fail to understand this whole growth process, and perhaps give evidence that we have not progressed past Discipleship ourselves. After all, condemning someone who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with us sounds a lot like black-and-white thinking. So instead of that, why not offer to share whatever we can?

We need to see the fundamentalism of the Discipleship stage not as good or bad, but as a necessary stage of development.

June 6, 2010

Wheat or Tares?

Filed under: Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 2:59 pm

One comment after my previous post makes the point that we might ourselves be the tares. Of course that’s true.

It’s also true that the real tares seldom consider themselves to be tares. So how can we tell the difference?

One of the biggest differences, in my experience, is that the tares don’t see any need to change themselves. They want to change others. And they definitely don’t want certain questions asked. In fact, I’ve gotten in trouble with tares my whole life because I ask questions.

Now, anyone can ask the “Why?” question like a 5-year-old forever. And a person can simply refuse to accept an answer. I’m not talking about that sort of questioning. But I am talking about asking real questions about real problems. Tares don’t want questions unless they have formulaic answers. They certainly don’t want open-ended questions asked. And they don’t like questions without answers.

But life isn’t so simple. When a friend’s young child got cancer at 22 months of age, it frightened people.

May 14, 2010

Among the Tares

Filed under: Surviving in Church — edoutlook @ 2:40 pm

Recently a young friend of mine asked, “What do you do when you discover your congregation is pretty much all tares?” This, of course, a reference to the parable of “The Wheat and the Tares.”

This question may shock us, but it shouldn’t. We always assume that the  wheat outnumbers the tares by a large margin– but why should that be so? We know that Satan works his hardest within the church, since that is his greatest enemy on Earth. Given human weakness, and ou propensity to pride, it shouldn’t be surprising if, over time, the tares population  increase and the wheat population decreases, perhaps, nearly to the point of extinction within a given congregation.

Over the last 40 years, I have belonged to several tare-dominant congregations. What does one do in that situation? First of all, it depends upon whether God has called you to that congregation, something which is between the individual and God. If you have a spiritual mentor you can trust, you can discuss it with them, but in the end it will be between you and God.

Until you have a definitive answer, you simply have to do the best you can under the circumstances. Here’s what I have learned in tare-land.

One day, when our older daughter was just a toddler, we took her to the grocery store. No sooner had we placed her in the infant seat in the cart, than she called out “Unnnh?” And almost immediately we heard another toddler reply “Unnh!” somewhere out in the grocery aisles. It was a fascinating display of toddler communication. Shana said “Unnh?” meaning, “Any other toddlers in here?” And quickly came the reply, “Yup, over here!”

When living among the tares, that’s our first duty, and our first opportunity– to discover other kindred spirits. Not to sit around and deplore the leadership of the church, or the condition of the believers, but to find another who shares our experience, and whom we can encourage. Over and over again I have used this technique.

Now, we can’t simply go into the sanctuary and say, “Anybody else think this congregation is full of hypocrites?” even if that’s our opinion. Although you’ll certainly have takers, it’s not the opportunity for a rewarding relationship. Instead of highlighting the shortcomings of others, be open about your own struggles. Don’t share all your deepest secrets in such a setting– hypocrites will savage you. But do be willing to say, “You know, I just don’t see things the way most others do here. I don’t think (for example) the evangelistic approaches we use actually do what we want them to.” And be ready to share what you do think.

Yes, you will be criticized. Don’t let that bother you. In a tare congregaation, you’re being criticized anyway. But the upside is that some other kindred spirit will say– perhaps privately, because they’ve been too afraid to reveal their true sentiments in public– “You know, I’ve been thinking the same thing.” In other words, it’s a signal to kindred spirits that you exist.

And then you have an opportunity to help the wheat grow, not just frustrate the schemes of the tares. That’s the first suggestion I have. Seek kindred spirits. Next time I’ll give some other options.

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