Sunday, September 30, 2007

100 Billion a Year

So now that we in the U.S. have talked about conservation for decades, now that we've gotten concerned about at least the probability (or certainty?) of human-generated global warming, now that Al Gore and "Live Earth" and other people and events have called our attention to environmental issues, now that even churches have gotten much more "green," guess what?

By itself, this country continues to go through an estimated 100 billion plastic bags (in the north) or sacks (in the south) every year. Said 100 billion bags require 12 million barrels of oil for production. And, no, they're not biodegradable. They'll be around for a long, long time.

Now, to get your mind wrapped around the figure 100 billion, consider: one billion seconds ago it was 1959. One billion minutes ago Jesus was walking around in Galilee.

But we're not talking about one billion. We're talking about 100 billion plastic bags. Every year. (I don't know the relative merit that paper might have over plastic, but doesn't it seem like paper would eventually return to the earth from whence it came?).

So why don't Americans take reusable bags or crates to the grocery stores? Writing in today's New York Times, Peter Applebome puts it succinctly: "the lesson for now pretty much seems to be that no matter how piddly the effort, no matter how small the bother, well, it's too much bother."

Applebome concludes: "Plastic bags are a small part of the picture. (sport utility vehicles, McMansions, long commutes anyone?) But you think, if we can't change our behavior to deal with this one, we can't change our behavior to deal with anything."

So what's it going to take for Americans to start doing what we should have been doing for a long time?

Source: Peter Applebome, "Human Behavior, the Politics of Global Warming and the Ubiquitous Plastic Sack," New York Times (Sunday, September 30, 2007) p. A28

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

See You at the Pole?

Tomorrow is the date for the annual "See You at the Pole" events here in the U.S. Years ago organizers settled on the fourth Wednesday of each September.

The idea behind "See You at the Pole," a decidedly-Christian thing, is simple: students gather at their school flag poles and pray. There's even a suggested meeting time: 7:00 AM. Adults, whether staff of the school or not, are also invited.

I have never gone to one of these. When I first heard about "See You at the Pole" back in the mid-90s the event was described in a way that made me want nothing to do with it. What I gathered was that it was all about getting around and even thumbing your nose at an assumed government hostility towards religion, especially Christianity.

Once again, I heard again all of that defensive and silly talk about God being kicked out of the schools (who managed to do that?), and about how, in the 1960s, the evil U. S. Supreme Court had outlawed Bible reading and prayer in public schools (lies!).

So I never went.

Earlier today I visited what appears to be the official website for "See You at the Pole." The wording there comes across as more reasonable than my original take. I still don't plan to attend "See You at the Pole." Maybe you (or a son or a daughter) do, or definitely don't plan to attend.

Why? What do you make of this?

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Beauty and Power of Congregational Song

I want to tell you about Darryl Tippens' booklet "That's Why We Sing," subtitled, "Reclaiming the Wonder of Congregational Singing" (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2007).

There aren't many items I might put on a list of required reading for elders, preachers, and worship leaders among the Churches of Christ. But this is one of them. Tippens starts out with these words:

"When I think of my most memorable moments in church, the times I have felt closest to God, almost always they involve hymns. When I was a small boy, I recall my mother going forward to receive Christ in baptism, as we sang:

Trust and obey,
For there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey.

Whether it was through exuberant gospel songs in Sunday worship, devotional songs around a campfire, or Christmas carols sung heartily with family and friends--the joy of divine love and the wonder of forgiveness reached my head and my heart largely through music." (p. 5)

Following a short, rousing introduction, Tippens talks about his purposes:

"In the pages that follow, I wish to do two things: first, to recall some of the main reasons why singing is central in the life of the church; and, second, to offer some suggestions for its preservation and renewal." (p. 8) He accomplishes those goals so very well, it's hard to imagine how it might be done better. A few more quotes.

On the capacity of singing to connect us to God:

In the free church tradition, of which Churches of Christ are a part, a suspicion of sacrament and mystery is common. We have tended to emphasize knowing the right things (doctrine) and doing the right things (ethics and conduct). As one wit has put it, we're good at doing worship 'from the neck up.' Thinking, doctrine, and ethics are very important, of course; but we must admit the obvious; they alone are not sufficient to sustain our faith. One can know the right things, but falter. Our hearts cry out for more, a divine encounter. We want to enter Bethel (the house of God) and shout, 'Surely the Lord is in this place!' (Genesis 28:16). We don't just want memories of a God who once touched his creation; we want communion with him today. (p. 9)

On the power of singing to teach:

Hymns . . . rehearse the stories of Scripture. In word and melody we experience Gethsemane, the cross, and the resurrection. We remember our sinfulness, our need for redemption, our duty to our neighbor, and the promise of eternal life. In a time when people have a diminished capacity to absorb long sermons, hymns stand ready to offer important inspirational and didactic service to the church, as they have done for millennia. (p. 15)

On accentuating the positive:

Many of us reared in Churches of Christ have heard a number of arguments for a cappella singing that seem to carry far less weight than they once did. It is perhaps time to consider other ways of approaching the subject. Many of the old arguments were negative in nature--why instrumental accompaniment is wrong. I suggest that we would receive a better reception if we offered positive arguments for unaccompanied singing. (p. 19)

On congregations learning new songs:

Unfortunately, some song leaders alienate segments of the congregation because they fail to consider that many do not know the new songs. Many older members appreciate the new hymns, but they sometimes feel left out since no one took time to teach the new songs before making them a part of the worship service. (Compounding the problem, often there is no musical notation to give struggling worshippers any help.) The resulting alienation is unnecessary. In singing there is an intimate intertwining of the minds, hearts, and spirits of the worshipers. Singing is not only for God, it is for one another; but when a segment of the worshipers cannot participate because of basic unfamiliarity, the possibility of joyous transcendence is blocked. Worship would greatly benefit from a simple commitment to introduce new songs as a part of the church's teaching program (p. 24).

Preachers and teachers, before your next sermon or lesson called "Sing His Praise!" or "Our Worship in Song" etc., you'll want to read this fine little work. With stories and quotations from Augustine and Karl Barth all the way to Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamont, "That's Why We Sing" will both inspire and inform you. Above all, Churches of Christ should take to heart and put into practice its message.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Female Deacons: 5th and Final (For Now)

A few months back, I did a series of posts about female deacons. I wanted to offer a few perspectives and make a few points. But I never really rounded off the discussion, never brought it to a close.

So that's what this post is about. I've added links to the earlier posts if you'd like to go back and see what was said there.

The first post, "Why Not Start with Female Deacons?" was about something I think is strange. Some congregations of the Church of Christ are expanding the roles filled by their women; but why is it that they don't appointment female deacons as a first step in that direction? The ordination of female deacons would be, I think, a relatively easy case to make. Yet few congregations seem to be interested in the female diaconate.

In later posts, I mentioned that there seems to be plenty of good evidence that churches of the New Testament age ordained female as well as male deacons. To repeat, this position is consistent with

A. the distinctively-Jewish background of the New Testament (see "Female Deacons, 2")

B. what we know of early Christian history (see "Female Deacons, 3")

C. statements from early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (see "Female Deacons, 4")

In this series, I have not dealt with the important New Testament texts, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (especially v. 11) and Romans 16:1-2. That's mainly because the scriptural pieces of the puzzle are the most accessible. Many people who visit this blog know those passages quite well already, and could comment on them as well or better than I can.

Not as a New Testament scholar (which I'm not), but more as an armchair historian I've added to the discussion what I can. Along that line I want to mention something else for your consideration. In his 1919 book The Model Church, the great G. C. Brewer--not exactly a flaming liberal--included a chapter on "The Diaconate."

Brewer does not refer to any of the corroborating evidence outside the New Testament. But he does point to 1 Timothy 3:11 and to Romans 16:1-2, and expresses his opinion that there probably were deaconesses in the earliest churches. However, he goes on to confess that he doesn't think we can decide the question for certain.

It is perhaps most significant that on this question Brewer declines to use his powerful influence and skill in order to dictate doctrine for the Churches of Christ.

Instead, Brewer's advice is for congregations to determine what they think the New Testament teaches and to act accordingly. In so many words he says, "Have a Bible study and make up your own minds." I find that respect for congregational autonomy both refreshing and instructive.

That most Churches of Christ today never make the time to follow Brewer's advice is not the result of new and better evidence against first-century female deacons. Just the opposite. As the previous posts have shown, the evidence "for" is stronger today, even if it's still regarded as inconclusive.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Churches of Christ don't know what deacons are. As someone said in the comments section of one of the earlier posts, if it is assumed that deacons are some sort of junior elders, then many of our people are naturally going to reject the very idea of female deacons before even considering the biblical evidence.

On the other hand, if deacons are understood as "special servants" commissioned to head up a certain ministry sanctioned and directed by the congregation's elders, then the way should be clear for even more-traditional people in the Churches of Christ to have a genuinely-biblical and clear-minded discussion.

So why isn't this happening?

Friday, September 21, 2007

C. S. Lewis: A Sexist?

Nearly sixty years ago, when he argued against the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England, C.S. Lewis wrote:

"We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one [who opposes the ordination of women] is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office" (God in the Dock, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970, p. 235. You can read his essay, "Priestesses in the Church?" here).

There are some obvious differences between the context in which Lewis wrote those words and the situation in which members of the Churches of Christ find themselves as we go round and round about "women's role in the church."

Lewis, for example, believed in the priesthood of the priest, not the priesthood of all believers. As he maintained his position on this question, he sensed no need to explain the passages in both Old and New Testaments that speak of women prophets. They were, as Lewis pointed out, prophets, preachers, but not priests.

But here's the connection I want to make. Those who might disagree with Lewis should not call him a sexist; the ideas connected with that word include prejudicial stereotyping against women. He's not guilty of that.

And neither are my brothers and sisters in the Churches of Christ who maintain traditional opinions about this question.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Sexism" and the Churches of Christ

I finally got in late Tuesday night, home from Abilene.

The rest of the lectures and classes I got hear (Monday night through Tuesday afternoon) were just as good as the ones I talked about last time. The Landon Saunders speech on Monday evening was something like an oracle.

Tuesday morning, I got to attend the Restoration Quarterly breakfast; even to got sit next to Carisse Berryhill who at Harding Graduate School and now at Abilene has always been so friendly and helpful to me in my studies. What a great lady and scholar she is.

I also got to hear Mark Shipp (on the early chapters of Hosea) and Glenn Pemberton (on the ambivalence we have in Churches of Christ about someone getting "a call to ministry" and the call narrative in Isaiah chapter 6).

After lunch, I went to Mike Casey's presentation on the subject of his latest book, Sir Garfield Todd. The best presentations you hear come whenever someone is speaking from a mind filled up from study and writing and reflection and prayer. That's the sort of thing I got to hear all day. What a pleasure. I even happened upon fellow blogger Bobby Valentine; so good to finally meet him in person.

That said, there's one perceived negative I want to mention and explore.

Something that most any observer of the ACU lectures would pick up on is that it has now become quite vogue (at least at Abilene during lectureship week) to come down hard on the "sexism" of the Churches of Christ.

In the opening lecture, for example, "racism" and "sexism" were mentioned together. Knowing the current situation in Churches of Christ, it was easy to connect the dots. Anyone who would argue for the traditional practice and position of the Churches of Christ on gender-and-worship questions is an unwitting "sexist" at best.

The next morning I attended a class in which the presenter told the story of a conversation he'd recently had. Someone who had attended the church where the presenter preaches told this preacher that he wouldn't be coming to his church. One of the reasons for staying away? The "sexism." The story was told in a way that affirmed the viewpoint of the dissenter. The upshot was that Churches of Christ have got to do something about their "sexism," or else.

To be fair, I should mention this. I realize that someone might say that, in the perception of someone unfamiliar with the Churches of Christ, current practice in most of our congregations might be taken as blatant sexism. It has sometimes been perceived (when our buildings weren't so plush) that acappella churches simply couldn't afford a piano.

But has it occurred to people who increasingly favor the s-word that congregations of the Church of Christ that are so "progressive" they encourage women to preside at the Lord's table would seem hopelessly sexist to many outsiders because they have not also ordained women to be some of the preachers and elders?

And I wonder. Where is the tolerance for people who hold to traditional positions on these questions, not because of their misogyny (if they know their own hearts and are extended a measure of trust) but because they think that's what the Word of God really says?

Why must these people be told they're guilty of "sexism" by their loving brothers and sisters who evidently assume that the other side can maintain their stance only when they maintain inherited-but-flawed interpretations combined with a bad heart and good-ole'-boy attitudes, the feeling created by the s-word.

Isn't there a way of taking issue with the traditional position on this set of questions without ascribing to others the motive of a latent sexism? I say there is. Study Scripture. Review history. Talk about tradition. Analyze arguments. Speak about how people think and feel. Make any points pro and con. Unveil what you believe is the vision and intent and heart of God according to the Scriptures.

Christian people should be able to do that without resorting to labels and names that serve no good purpose.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Live from the ACU Lectureship

Yesterday I drove across not-so-dusty-because-we've-had-rain-this-year West Texas. All the way from Amarillo to Abilene. (There's got to be a country song in there somewhere, but I think it's already been written).

Anyway, I got to the campus of ACU just in time to hear the opening speech. You can read the story from the Abilene News-Reporter here. Jerry Taylor's sermon on "What Does the Lord Require?" really was excellent.

Afterwards I went to "Gospel and Culture Coffee House" session on "Dirty Little Secret: The PostSecret Phenomenon." Have you heard about PostSecret? The session gave some basic information about this extremely-popular (and powerful) site. Towards the end, the presenters raised questions like,

What does PostSecret teach us about the therapeutic value of revealing secrets?

And what does this huge phenomenon say about the importance of confession in the church?

Today, I went to a morning class on "Telling a Better Story," taught by John Siburt. At 11:00 I got to experience a fantastic keynote speech by Fred Asare, a Christian minister (of the Word and to the poor) from Accra, Ghana. I haven't heard anything so moving in such a long time.

At lunchtime, I went to the Leaven Journal Luncheon. There were eleven for Leaven (just one of the jokes the group came up with). I was happy to meet or meet again the folks who were there. But I was disappointed that a meeting about a common interest and the future one of our better print journals was so poorly attended. What's happening to serial publications among the Churches of Christ? Do people simply not read religious magazines anymore? Is this a result of the demise of the strong doctrinal consensus that used to characterize the Churches of Christ?

I bet a lot of folks will turn out to hear Landon Saunders tonight. He's speaking on Micah 3:1-12, "Night Without Vision."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Off to Abilene

As things turn out, I'm getting to go to Abilene this year for the lectureship at ACU, which starts Sunday night. I won't get to take in the whole thing, but will get to be there for most of two days.
One thing I'm really looking forward to is the chance to meet up with, in the flesh, at least a few people I've met by way of the blogs. I'll be the white, middle-aged, bald guy in glasses. . . . Oh, wait. That won't narrow it down much, will it?

Anyway, it's also going to be great to hear some of the best spirits and minds of our day. Looking through the lectureship brochure, it's hard for me to decide on a certain class. The last time I felt like this, I was about ten years old, looking through the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Wishbook.

In case you aren't going to be there, but are interested in the lectures, the theme lectures will be broadcast live at You can also catch them at Acappella Radio on iTunes. The brochure also says that CDs and DVDs of the lectures will be available.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Native American Religions

When Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, he thought he would eventually land on the east coast of Asia.

To Europeans of the 1400s, anyone living east of the Indus River was Indian. According to their worldview--and here I used that term quite literally--except for small islands nearby, terra firma was unified. The continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa had their distinctions. But they were connected. Together they were called the Orbis Terrarum, "the Island of the Earth."

So when he saw people in that place where he finally landed, Columbus called them los Indios, "the Indians." Who else could they have been? By calling the people he saw "the Indians," Columbus both reflected and reinforced the assumptions with which he had begun.

Aren't we a lot like him? No, we don't have a global concept that requires us to think of the western hemisphere as a new world. But, whenever we say "Indian" or the politically-correct "Native American," don't we see in our minds certain images, and begin with a set of pre-understandings, all of which get reinforced by how we see what we see?

No, I don't imagine that what I'm describing is restricted to the subject at hand. It's just that non-Native Americans have a hard time breaking out of the cycle of reinforced assumptions when it comes to Native Americans.

That's the case partly because of something that happened in the summer of 1550. It was then that Charles V of Spain called a conference of sorts. He summonsed a group that was to hear opposing arguments on the question, What kind of being is the Indian?

The first presenter, a scholar named Sepulveda, picked up Aristotle's idea that some people are slaves by nature. And the Indians, he said, were such people. Therefore, it was only right for Europeans to enslave Indians and to conduct war and use violence in order to conquer them.

The second presenter, a Dominican priest named Las Casas, had spent many years among the Indians. Referring to long treatises he had written, he argued for days on end that the Indians were sophisticated in the arts and languages and government; that they were gentle, eager to learn and, above all, quick to accept Christianity.

Even before that time, and reaching right up to the present, the prevailing images of the Indian are complete opposites: the sub-human being and the noble non-Christian. For some, Indians have been and are pagan, uncivilized, incapable of learning, unable to govern themselves, beastly and inhumane. To others, though not Christian, the Indian is artistic, civil, able to learn, filled with wisdom.

Common to both views has been the notion that Indians are essentially irreligious. Columbus wrote, "they do not hold any creed, nor are they idolaters." A decade later, Vespucci wrote, "They have no church, no religion, and are not idolaters."

Because of such long-held impressions, only within the last few decades have historians of American religion even considered the religions of Native Americans. (!) Until recently, Indians mentioned in the context of American religion were almost always connected to the missionary efforts of Christians.

More recently, though, some scholars have begun drawing up maps of the territory we call "Native American Religions." And that's what we'll be looking at in the "Introduction to World Religions" at Amarillo College this coming Monday night.

Main Source: Gill, Sam D. Native American Religions: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1982), 1-13.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Listening to Elie Wiesel

My daughter Chloe just began her college career at West Texas A&M University. Convocation ceremonies were Thursday night. The honored guest and featured speaker was Holocaust survivor, teaching scholar, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

Here and there, I had seen so many references to Wiesel. But I really didn't know much about him or his story.

Chloe had read, and was reading again, Night, Wiesel's memoir about his Holocaust experiences. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy for myself. I never knew.

From the back cover of the paperback edition of Night: "Born in the town of Sighet, Translyvania, Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. Night is the terrifying record of Elie Wiesel's memories of the death of this family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man."

No, the book is not a pick-me-up kind of read. But I can't remember anything that was more gripping than this book. In one of the more memorable sections, Wiesel interrupts his description and reflects:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw
transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.


I will remember seeing and hearing him speak for a long time. Some of the more memorable parts of his speech:

He noted that "Romeo and Juliet" is always and everywhere interpreted as a great love story. It's not, he said. It should be understood as a story about the kinds of things that can and do happen when two groups of people hate each other.

He mentioned that people often ask him how he managed to survive what he went through. He says that the big question has not been his survival, but rather the maintenance of his sanity in the years that have followed. People who have experienced deep grief should get to hear that from time to time, so that they won't imagine that they are alone.

He said he's noticed that whenever a cause has gripped and moved him, it's turned on the suffering of children. I thought to myself, Mature people just sense that there's something uniquely terrible about a child or adolescent being tortured and terrified.

He ended with this story:

Once upon a time, there was a young man who decided that he would spend his life helping other people. He consulted scholars who were expert in the conditions around the world. He wanted to know, "What is the worst place in the world? Where is the quality of life the lowest?" He was told, and he moved there.

As expected, the people of that place were hateful and violent and mean. The young man would stand on the sidewalk every day and tell the people walking by that they should treat each other better, live better lives.

He was ridiculed and insulted.

Finally, one day a girl laughed at him and told him, "Nobody's listening to you. Nobody cares. Why do you keep going on and on with your speeches to people who are ignoring you?

He said, "I used to speak like this so that I could change them. Now I do it to keep them from changing me."