Monday, March 30, 2009

Facts Under Attack

Twice now, in the past week or so, I have had a conversation that has put my method and style of learning under fire. It's a profoundly uncomfortable place to be, and my apologies if I have ever derided your learning-style - I see now whence you are coming.

Today in class it was a "flip-flop," - we must move from semantic to experiential learning in our work with youth especially in the church. Prioritize experiential learning, start with it, and move then into semantic. Don't necessarily separate them, but remove the primacy that facts have heretofore held over our education of the young.

I would that I could tell you why this discomfits me so profoundly. Because, honestly, from a pedagogical perspective, I do not disagree. We should be emphasizing experiential learning. We should be giving our tactile, auditory, and kinesthetic learners a fair shake at what the church has to teach.

Maybe it's an incipient fear that we verbal learners will be left in the cold when the revolution's over. And maybe it's a hesitance - will we entirely lose the semantic content of our message? Will facts and truths become of secondary importance to experience? Will that last even be a bad thing?

But, mostly, I think, it is that I have never, EVER felt that semantic knowledge - facts and ideas, to my way of thinking - are disconnected from ME. I believe, to the level that I believe that God loves me, that all things are connected. My knowledge, the trees outside, the stars on the other side of the universe; everything is linked to everything else, by God's eternal will, if by no other string. When I read that Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier, I connect it to Yuri Gagarin, and his first orbit, and to my deep and abiding love of space. I may not have a great deal of sports trivia on hand, but I know people who care deeply about this range of knowledge, and I care about them.

At bottom, then, it is this: intellego ut amam - I understand in order that I might love. And I love in order that I might understand. I love this universe in which God has placed me, and the people who surround me with their love. Why should I not understand more, know more, in order that I might love more? And I learn best, I find, when my newfound knowledge connects to something else I care about.

Thank God all things are connected.

My fear, then, is that we will spend so much time connecting our knowledge to our youth that we will forget - they are not the heart of the web. They are not the center of the universe - God is. And only through proximity to Him can we ever hope to perceive the whole structure of universal thought. Let us, by every rope of love we have, bind our young people to God - then, and only then, can they learn what binds them to every other thing in existence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pastoral Authority

A friend of mine got hurt last night.

She's very okay, in case you were worried - took a bad fall and her muscles seized up. Which presented as neck pain and partial paralysis. You can see how this would be scary. But she's okay - this was a pretty standard sports injury, and everyone's doing fine.

No, what was fascinating was everyone else's reaction. Y'see, I'm here at seminary, where most everyone's training to be a pastor. And I swear to you, you have never seen a more pathetic thing than thirty seminarians, all of whom want desperately to help, and none of whom know what to do. We don't move, because we don't want to step on someone else's toes. What can be concretely done is being concretely done. So what do you do with this superfluity of help, gushing from our wounded hearts?

Well, we pray, of course. But who? How? Who decides that we will pray? Where? Whence the authority to make that kind of declaration?

I imagine it will be relatively easy, when I'm a pastor of my own congregation, to step up and say, "Friends, let's pray." But right now, I don't seem to have the authority to make that call.

TBTG, someone else did - the referee, actually. And as soon as he indicated that we were going to pray, EVERYONE joined in.

But I was left with this question - is ordination really just another step in a process? Like your first day of school as a teacher, just another ritual to endure? Or is it truly something more? An acknowledgement, by a church, that you do have the authority to lead a flock, to minister, to call us to pray?

I'm not sure. But I'm jazzed to find out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Defense of the Denomination - Interlude

Someone asked me, not without justice, why exactly I'm promulgating this series. What perception do I have that the denomination is under attack?

I am not going to name names or point too firmly, but I'm getting rumbles of a few things that are bothering me. Firstly, and the reason I'm not naming names here is because you can find them on the internets pretty easily, my church is bleeding congregations. Local sessions and pastors are jumping ship, for largely one reason. Frankly, as it concerns that, God bless 'em. They are adhering to their consciences, and to their perception of God's call. I wish they had more interest in the unity of the body of Christ, but so be it - they have made their calls.

The second, and more disturbing rumor I'm hearing is that churches are withholding their per capita (for you non-presbys, it's like your Presbyterian dues. Goes to fund all sorts of neat things like having a national denomination and local oversight), not only from GA (a time-honored method of sticking it to those folks from Louisville), but also from their presbyteries.

I take very seriously the vows I swore when I was ordained as an elder in the church. I signed up for this. I agreed to uphold the Books of Order and Confessions, and if I felt that the church had lost its way from those documents, I would be the first in line to leave. Me. Myself. Leaving the church. What I wouldn't do is drag my congregation with me, or try and starve my governing body of cash (God bless all libertarians as well), while still trying to hold on to some illusion of authority in the church. The church granted you your authority when you were ordained, and the abuse of that authority distresses me deeply. If you can't speak with us, as one church, please don't speak at all. I beg you - go and find your calling in God's Kingdom. Don't ruin mine.

That's my cause for denominational concern - why I feel obliged to apologize for my commitment to my denomination. Soon, I hope to explain my second reason why having a denomination is a good idea.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

In Defense of the Denomination

I realize this is all uncited and has no historical proof. This is because I am lazy. If I ever try and publish this in slaughtered tree form, I will have footnotes and everything, I promise.

When folk first started the non-apostolic denominations (here I'm speaking most of the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, and their ilks) in America, they had one goal in mind. They tended to stick with their theological (and, therefore, to some degree, ethnic) confessional brethren, but the purpose of national denominations in the states was not a confessing church on the European model. Rather, they were hoping to do ministry.

A regular-sized congregation in this country has relatively limited reach outside their own sphere. Certainly, there are opportunities in their local areas, and sometimes they can afford to send mission trips to nearby/cheap nations, but they can't afford to build and maintain hospitals, schools, or any of the other staples of international missions as far away as Africa or Asia.

When this was recognized in the 18th (ish) century, local congregations of similar theological background banded together, not for governance, but to pool their resources, to send missions to the places that need them most desperately. These purely local movements grew into national ones, in which governance became folded into the more ministerial functions. But international missions were a prime goal of the American denominations.

I would that I had data to give you. I do not. But what I'm hearing these days is that, as denominations, our funding for international missions, and for mission work in our own country, is falling. We are turning inward, asking why we should give our hard-earned dollars to local governing bodies and the national conventions above them.

I am committed to the Church of Jesus Christ universal, and to my membership of it. I am also, to a lesser extent, committed to my national denomination - to the PC(USA), not because I think it's the most lucrative, or the most powerful, but because there are structures in place in my beloved presbytery meetings for trying to convince people, and for being convinced. Real dialogue is a possibility, and we can learn from one another even as we disagree.

So, my Presbyterian brethren, I beg you - stick with us. From the bottom up, we need to continue to be committed to the goals and ideals of a denomination concerned with mission, and with helping people, as Christ called us to do.

And from the top down, we need a revitalized call to missions, both at home and abroad. In these dire days, there is more need than ever for real engagement with our problems. Like President Obama's vision of government, let our churches be committed to solutions, not parts of the problems.

There is a second part to this story, coming soon to a feed reader near you...

Rational Thought

Taking my daily dose of bile on Huffington Post the other day (I find it healthful to occasionally read the opinions of those who disagree with me. Keeps the blood flowing), I found this quotation on a comment, now lost to the seas of a changeable internet:

"Organized religion is where rational thought goes to die."

I've been trying to frame my rebuttal for a few days now, worrying this little line like a sore tooth. For there is something in there - I know people who have joined churches that tell them what to think, and are much happier for it. People who do not want or need to be engaged, but do need guidance in how to lead their lives.

I think what bothers me, then, perhaps, is the generalization. For, in my context (seminary), perhaps the exact opposite is true. We MUST learn to think rationally about our faith, and connect our faith with our reason, to survive the stormy waters in which we find ourselves.

There are plenty of other places where this dialectic applies. Someone was railing (again on HuffPost) about the fact that taxpayer money is spent on MarketPlace. I love MarketPlace, and I would see the guy's point if Marketplace consistently told people what to do with their money (a la Mad Money on CNBC, thanks Jon Stewart), but they don't. More than anything else, I think MarketPlace (and NPR in general) want people to THINK about everything.

I'll confess - sometimes I think too much. I feel like I've gotten better at balancing thinking, feeling, and being, of later years, and I am the better for that. I can't reply to my erstwhile internet opponent directly, so instead, I'll say it to all of you, dear readers. Willful ignorance is no prerequisite to faith - some of us try our best to understand, in order that we might believe.