Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Intellectual Honesty

As a part of my morning devotions, I've been reading Amazing Grace, the biography of William Wilberforce by Eric Metaxas, which was loaned to me by Ed Gorman, a dear member of our congregation. The following passage from pp. 50-51 is a description of his conversation with Isaac Milner, a literal and intellectual giant of 18th century England who engaged Wilberforce persuasively from the perspective of his evangelical faith:

"Wilberforce was through his life possessed of a rare and bracing intellectual honesty. At Cambridge he had once been asked to sign his name assenting to the articles of the Church of England. This was viewed then as a formality, one of the college's ancient requirements for receiving one's degree; everyone simply signed the document and took their degree. But Wilberforce refused. He didn't at that time agree with the official tenets of the Anglican Church, or at least wasn't sure whether he did, and therefore couldn't bring himself to sign it, which delayed his degree for several years. In an age when, just as today, most people shrugged or winked their way through such hypocrisies, Wilberforce would not.
"But now his intellectual honesty would work in the other direction. With (Isaac) Milner as his interlocutor, he examined the same tenets of orthodox Christianity to which a few years before he couldn't give his assent. He seems to have wanted to know what was true, but until now had been unable to find out to his satisfaction. He knew that if he discovered a truth to his satisfaction he would have no choice but to embrace it and act upon it. Just as he wouldn't sign the paper assenting to beliefs he didn't hold, he knew that if he held a belief he would be obliged to act upon it, and not just in small and isolated instances, as with that signature, but in all of his life. He knew that the tiniest mustard seed can grow and grow and become a tree in which the birds of the air make their nests. Ideas have far-reaching consequences, and one must be ever so careful about what one allows to lodge in one's brain. Now, as the conversation with Milner continued, Wilberforce could almost see the birds of the air looking domestically in his direction."

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Red, Blue, and Purple States

If you like maps and are interested in elections and demographics, you will probably find this analysis interesting.

Human Faces

The BBC is reporting that the Bali bombers were executed today in Indonesia. To be honest, I had mostly forgotten that act of terrorism and hadn't really given its perpetrators any thought for quite some time. I suppose I'm actually a bit surprised that they were still alive until now, though it sounds like others in Indonesia also expected this to have happened more quickly.

The part of this article that made the biggest impression on me, however, was the picture of the three men at the top.

I don't know if this is a difference between the BBC and the American news sources with which I am more familiar, but I am not accustomed to seeing the photos of condemned criminals represent them in such a natural - and even happy! - state. I hadn't realized it, but I'm used to seeing mugshots of unshaven, unkempt men (and usually they are men) who are presented more as criminals than as human beings. There is nothing in these pictures that helps to distance me from their humanity, and that is somewhat arresting (no pun intended).

To be clear, I am not trying to minimize their horrible act of terrorism in any way or to pretend that they are not vicious criminals. What they did was an act of pure evil. In fact, that's what stirs me about this. To see these young men looking so normal, so engaging, so much like people I would otherwise relate to reminds me of the great capacity for good and evil that resides in the human soul.

On one hand the fullness of their humanity exacerbates the depravity of their crime against other fully human beings. On the other hand, it also makes it much harder for me to be comfortable with repaying their lethal terrorism with lethal force. Regardless of one's political position on capital punishment, the whole cycle is clearly sub-human.

It makes me long for the restoration of all humanity in the image of the Son. God speed that work, and God speed that day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

One Big Family

I simply want to celebrate publicly the wonderful event in the life of our church family yesterday morning. We had our "One in Christ" worship service, cramming all of our weekly attendance into one worship time in two electronically connected rooms. It was a technological feat for us to pull off this rapidly changing two-way simulcast, but the technology only served the deeper challenge of helping our whole church worship and connect together as one big worshiping family.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Strong Fences

I can only think of a few childhood moments that struck me as so revelatory as the time that my increasingly reclusive grandmother admonished , "Strong fences make good neighbors." My grandmother had many wonderful qualities, but a healthy balance of extroversion was not one of them.

I'm afraid that side of my grandmother would be enjoying our culture more and more with every passing year.

We have so many fences between us. Here in Minnesota we are fast approaching that time of year when physical neighbors never see one another outside of their automatic garage doors. We know each other only by our tail lights. We have lots of relational fences, inhibitions that keep us from sharing our lives with each other in any meaningful way. Just a few nights ago I was running along one of my regular routes and tried to offer a simple "Good run" to another runner passing me in the opposite direction. But even that small effort fell victim to an iPod fence.

As our vision discernment conversations at First Lutheran have attempted to assess the needs of our external community, the need for friendships, connection, and a sense of community has frequently been identified as pressing. (I can't help but wonder, of course, if those of us in the church are really much better off in this regard. We've got a long way to go.) The more I look around, the more I agree and the more I realize how much fencing we will need to break down. This is not going to be easy. For some reason, we really resist getting closely connected with other people. Even though it brings deep joy to life, we seem to avoid it.

Would any of my readers like to chime in with their comments on the barriers that keep us from establishing genuine community with other people?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Disciple making

I blogged about this same topic on Saturday, but I got fired up about it again yesterday. What if we could design a simple, clear process for helping people to grow as disciples? Wouldn't that be great? (And, yes, I have read Simple Church, in case anyone is asking...)

The thing that got me thinking about this was Sunday's annual presentation of Bibles to third graders. This year we happened to have several (infant) baptisms scheduled right before the third graders got their Bibles. This created a very interesting sequence. First I stood up front with the parents and sponsors of the baptized children, asking them about their commitment to nurture the faith of this child that we were baptizing into the Christian community. Our baptismal service gives me the opportunity to charge them specifically to bring their children to corporate worship; to teach them the Lord's Prayer, the historic creeds of the church, and the 10 commandments; and to "place in their hands" the holy Scriptures. We as a congregation also promise to work with them and support them in this commitment to their children.

Then, right after the Baptism, the 3rd graders and their parents stood up to receive Bibles that our congregation purchased for them. My colleague, Pastor Angie, explained to the parents and children what these Bibles are and how to use them. And in this juxtaposition of events, even a dunce like me could see that we were doing something right. We parents and congregation members were honoring one of the promises we had made at the baptisms of these children 7-8 years ago. -- And we are working diligently to ensure that we consistently honor the rest of them too.

All this made me think about how great it would be to act just as intentionally for our whole community, and not just for our children and students. Being a Christian in a non-Christian world is no small thing. If we expect to grow together as disciples of Jesus, we really ought to invest some careful, strategic thought in a process that facilitates exactly that result. And then we ought to invest some disciplined, strategic effort in that process.

Make Disciples. Novel idea.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Giving an opportunity for Christian adolescents to confirm their faith is an old tradition. Without doing some homework, I couldn't say exactly how long Lutherans and other kinds of Christians have had a rite like Confirmation, but I know it's been a very long time.

As we had rehearsal today for tomorrow's confirmation service, I was having three thoughts:
1. This is such an important time in our students' lives. I'm so glad for the excellent job that has been done especially by our student ministry staff during the years leading up to confirmation.
2. This is such an important time in our students' lives. I wonder how we could help shape students into followers of Christ even more effectively and faithfully than we already do.
3. This is such an important time in our students' lives. I wonder how we could take this faith formation process and adapt it for the life of our whole church community. Maybe we could call it "conformation," all of us being conformed to the life of Jesus - though possibly in some very non-conformist ways.