Month: February 2013

Louisiana College – Masters of Suspicion

“I can help you go places.” My long-time friend, who is also a pastor, retold a story shared years earlier. He and at least one other were carpooling when his new acquaintance informed him, “You need to know me.” As a self-described redneck country boy, my friend fired back with something like, “God will get me where he wants me.” The wanna-be mover and shaker chose the wrong young fellow to impress.

I once invited a well-known denominational employee to consider speaking at our church. We were not large enough.

Quite a few years ago I served on a denominational committee. It was during the post-CR (Conservative Resurgence) move to re-enchant churches with the Cooperative Program. Some may remember during the early days of the CR, the CP was something of a pawn used to wrest power away from the then current leadership. That is, leaders in the CR called into question what their CP dollars were supporting and said when things change they would encourage their churches to give more.

The committee on which I served worked to fill leadership roles on convention committees. We call it a Nominating Committee. Pastors and lay leaders names were submitted for consideration and this committee vetted them. One key qualification for consideration was how much the church associated with the nominee gave to the Cooperative Program. If the figure was less than 10% the person was set aside. The committee might return to that person if another could not be found. But, the clear goal was to install those whose churches gave at least 10%. There were no considerations given to the church’s unique circumstances that may have created the decision as matter of economics. It was assumed to be a lack of loyalty.

In retrospect, I think this is extortion for self-preservation.

As I typed that last sentence I could not help think of John Boehner’s words about President Obama’s use of military personnel to champion the need for Congress, specifically the House, to act before we enter the period known as sequestration on March 1. Boehner said the President used the military personnel at a public event as props to provoke action. I think there is a PhD to be earned exploring the way American Christianity, particularly in Southern Baptist life, mirrors the political culture in whichever era it found itself. And, I have little doubt we would read of a developing a/theology of power.

We rarely hear calls to follow Jesus’ weak power, or as some describe it a weak messianism. You know, the type of leadership that leads to death on a cross; the sort of leadership that expresses solidarity with the blind, the lame, the infirm, the least of these of Matthew 25. Or, the push to champion the small church, the struggling mission, something beyond task forces and, “I will preach at one small church,” by the largesse of our denominations.

Recently I suggested the events taking place at Louisiana College turned on the issue of power and not theology. I imagine that on the other side of emergency Trustee meetings, regular meetings, and hearings on the activities of students someone will tell the story of intrigue and decisions related to power and influence. Maybe that student interested in religion and politics will help us call for the turning of swords into plowshares.

A friend questioned my assertion that this imbroglio is about power and not theology. We chatted it up a bit. I thought that while we wait a few weeks for what may come from the regular Trustee meeting at Louisiana College we might explore my contention a bit more, maybe offer a clarification.

The much-anticipated emergency Trustees meeting at Louisiana College revealed little except that the jury is still deliberating. Nothing of substance took place.

I know too little of the details to speculate. It simply seems that a seven hour, or so, debate over Calvinism left little time to investigate the more weighty matters of the future of academics and accreditation at Louisiana College. Observers now wait for the scheduled meeting in March.

The heart of the issue at Louisiana College, as it gets played out, is not about the agency of God or the agency of man. I should also note, I do not believe that is the larger debate in the SBC either. Regardless where you fall on the theological spectrum about such matters, I contend the matter is power and not monergism or synergism.

Those locked in a heated debate over Calvinism consider the two poles the only options. Those holding one end of the pole or the other seem to think they get to call king’s x on any other possibility. The debates and even my description expose that the real matter is power, not what one believes. After all, the watching world really wants to know how we hold our beliefs. If we persist in being uncharitable and always fighting over what we believe, we have lost the battle and missed the manner of Jesus. Cue the recent stories about Tebow withdrawing from the Grand Opening Festivities at FBC, Dallas.

We want this to be about theology. If we can convince one another the issue is theology then we can justify all manner of behavior in our battle for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And, at that point the issue is theology but not in the way traditionally framed.

Instead of a choice between Calvin and Arminus, or any of their theological descendants, as if theology only sprang up in/after the Reformation, the current malaise conjures a theology, or a/theology, of power. One wonders if the current emphasis on God’s sovereign power is not a rouse for a desired human sovereign power, sort of a false humility or a grand cover for pride. In short, employing the mechanics of modern politics and lawyering up betray a fundamental trust in the Way of Jesus, the Revelation of God.

We have created elaborate arguments against the masters of suspicion who asserted, and whose ideological descendants assert, that religion is nothing more than a false consciousness. And yet, when we step outside of the pattern of Jesus, in our leadership tactics, it seems we provide a material illustration in support of their contentions. These instances undermine our verbal declarations in what is termed our war with culture as we practice the very habits of our culture.

Further, when we preach and teach the life and ministry of Jesus and fail to offer a contemporary instantiation of what that might look like in our world we convey a suspicion of the very beliefs we say we hold. Our attempts to gain and control power betray Jesus’ message of weakness in the face of strength.

Our matter is a lack of trust. Our lack points up Jesus’ Way. We cannot continue to take up a different way and expect anyone to believe in the material difference Jesus makes in life, much less offer any confidence in a life after life after death.

Jesus maintained his determination in the face of Herod’s wants and Jerusalem’s lack of desire. (Luke 13) He continued on course, at the very least, as an illustration of his trust in God. Staring down those in power – on all sides – Jesus entered the center of his world unarmed and without a cabal of minions to do his bidding.

Jesus demonstrated in real life what we marvel at with Abraham. When we read the writer of Hebrews note that Abraham had committed Isaac to death believing God would raise him up, we see Jesus as a greater illustration. Abraham believed his son would live again. Jesus went to the cross faithful that he would live again. He need not hold power in the way his culture practiced it. His power came in his faithfulness to God, a weak power by most standards.

Louisiana College is merely another case in point. The college and the players involved are not the problem. They merely manifest the lack we all experience – a lack of trust manifest in the pursuit of power. My fear is that when we take up such patterns of power, we ourselves have become the masters of suspicion.

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Louisiana College – The Death of Idealism

Dr. W.A. Criswell wrote one book, Why I Preach the Bible Is Literally True. Others sold, as by him, were either transcribed sermon series or compilation works. Amazon does list an autobiography. When, as a young ministry student and avid book buyer, I learned many authors hire ghostwriters, and that it was common knowledge Dr. Criswell did, my estimation, idealism, of Dr. Criswell died. I don’t think I bought another book he wrote.

The blow was not crushing. It is just that I had a hard time reconciling that someone would write a book about the literal preaching of the Bible but not really be the writer of books that bore his name. I know you technically minded will submit that these were Dr. Criswell’s words. I will not quibble that he originated the content. But, sermons are not books.

Young ministry students carry into their education a good dose of idealism. Mentors hope to harness their accompanying passion and enthusiasm without letting on that it just is not all peas and carrots. No one would want to dissuade a young person from his or her call.

But, there is little room for idealism in ministry. People you pray for die. Relationships you work to help reconcile remain fractured. Couples you pronounce husband and wife put their vows asunder. Friendships rarely grow deep with members – maybe it is our fear and theirs. Someone will let you down. “Don’t take it personal,” we are told. Good luck with that.

Our patterned response is to lay hold of a higher purpose, a high calling, and as such an Audience for whom we practice our craft that transcends the human. Piety becomes our friend. We get lost in the to come with such force of preservation that we rarely dip into the depths of pain suffered by those around us, those in our pastoral care. Distance helps us survive. Our hope that is built on nothing less longs for some glad morning. We would enjoy our craft more were it not for the people. A tempting conclusion.

Idealism always dies; it is just a matter of how. Holding on to idealism rarely leads to anything but skepticism. Pastoral ministry and skepticism make strange bedfellows. Mental health often demands one or the other, not both.

It is not that idealism died at Louisiana College. But, idealism within a number of students has now died. The dream of studying the bible and knowing Jesus turned nightmare at the grim realities of politics and potential scandal. What do we expect in a post-CR SBC? These young fellows believed they were promised different, not more of the same.

I have read comments on both sides. Some students claim relief from over-bearing Calvinist students and faculty as the hoped for outcome. Others contend this is just a Traditionalist move where students and faculty are mere pawns as ethical standards are shuttered for victory.

Amidst the anticipation of an emergency Trustee meeting on Monday and the impending hearings for two students charged with disparaging the college on Tuesday, I fear something else may have died. These skirmishes make it too easy to set aside the high ideal of loving our neighbor – be they impassioned students, Presidents, Trustees, or Convention Executives.

Idealism tends to be a framework from which we filter our experiences in and with the world. An ideal may be the aim of our action. In this case the ideal, the commandment of Jesus, represents the arena of personal and community transformation. Where idealism moves us to evaluate another person’s action, the ideal calls into question our own decisions.

When wounded, offended, challenged our attention turns toward the other. If we frame the events carefully, we may shutter the ideal to which we have committed. Amidst our own justifications we violate the love called for by the Man from Galilee. Doing so becomes a wedge between what is proclaimed and what is lived. Our faith becomes ethereal rather than material.

Our world is missing a material faith, that is a faith expressed in the tactile experiences of life. My friend Guy asked if those involved, mainly those leaders playing politics with a couple of students who questioned the non-renewal of beloved professors, knew others outside the Christian camp could see right through to the pettiness of their actions. He followed up with this gem,

Why would any person, looking for answers to life’s most difficult questions or relief from the burdens of suffering and guilt, take such people seriously, assuming, at some point, the Gospel message ever sprang from their mouths?

When idealism dies we are forced to wrestle with brokenness – our world’s and our own. When ideals die we lose our tether. Our actions will call into question our claims. Looking out for the school we lead becomes looking out for our own personal interests. Looing out for professors we love risks the same.

There are reports of much deeper issues. I believe there are. Someone named Nunya knows but hides behind a pseudonym. These matters noted are important. There is little doubt these will come to light. They take in the future of a school, not just professors, students, and administrators.

Not much has been said about the Trustees involved in the affairs of Louisiana College. You can be sure that will change after Monday. We will learn what really has died of importance at Louisiana College.

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Louisiana College – More Wagging the Dog

Liberals do what liberals do. Fundamentalists do what fundamentalists do. These are givens. And, the reason they do what they do lies in their commitment to their own givens – their own framework for understanding and articulating the way the world works. This shows up in politics and religion. And boy does it show up in religion.

When I first read of the Louisiana College affair I could not imagine that the issue at heart turned on a couple of student responses to the President’s Pen. If that is the case, then the President has not spent much time in the local church, yea Southern Baptist Churches. What the two students wrote in response to what appears as a defensive piece pales in comparison to what pastors and staff endure, in some cases weekly.

Dave Miller rightly notes that many a pastor has nuked the playground in response to even the slightest criticism. That is to point up that pastors are not immune to similar behaviors and impulses as those of the President of LC.

What interests me is less the details, and boy are they sordid according to my sources, but more the way the story of two young men take center stage while indeed Louisiana College appears to be burning. And, the fire began inside, not an assault from without. Blaming the devil is little more than invoking the Flip Wilson defense.

I propose that Joshua Breland and Drew Wales have nothing to do with Louisiana College burning. They, instead, present an occasion to deflect attention away from a story that began while these boys were still in high school. Bringing Breland and Wales up on charges of disparaging the College should give the Trustees the framework to more than slap the hands of those who will be discovered having put LC at risk academically and embarrass the cause of Christian ethics and integrity. The players in this game would surprise most. Well . . . maybe many.

Moving colleges to the right has long been the game plan of Fundamentalists in the SBC from the get. The long narrative of lost colleges and universities played over and again in the early days of the CR. I suggest that what was lost was power. I realize there will be those who disagree. I acknowledge there are theological differences. But, when it comes to wielding power the two sides are the same. This represents the as is structure. Control the money, exert the power. In this Liberal and Fundamentalist are two sides of the same coin.

When power and money are threatened we tend to couch our battles in terms of theology, at least in the SBC. Consider the rise of the Calvinist/Non-Calvinist debate/divide the current iteration. Claims from both sides generate heat for the respective base from which to call out the other. I have read the contention that Tom Ascol is dark lord bent to turn the SBC toward Geneva. Really? Maybe so. He did survive lightning.

In an interesting public display Baptists21 held an event in New Orleans last summer maybe to convince young fellows the two groups may live together in the same denomination post-Conservative Resurgence. Yes, I did attend the event. The one thing they left out was how those on the dais have worked to hone the delicate balance of power. Everyone smiled for the event. Reciprocal accolades were passed. So long as the Reformer does not threaten the Radical Reformer, there will be peace in the valley. Unsettle the financial foundations and swing the pendulum ever so slightly and the sorts of skirmishes that threaten LC show up. This. Is. Not. About. Theology.

Except it is theological. What we witness is quite telling of the way theology functions and works within the SBC. It serves to keep the balance. The chief issue, despite calls to the obvious particulars – evangelism, mission, church planting, prayer, discipleship – is maintaining the general structure that hangs precariously in the balance of egos. Do not take that any other way than anyone of we human beings given the occasion to wield power and control finances will find our ego in the way. All of us.

As an aside, I was once told that if I did not like the way things were going in the SBC, I should do what they did. Get a group together and plan your own ten-year takeover. I should be prepared to get blood on my sword. This is precisely how the general structure is maintained as the particulars shift. Fight the same way and in so doing nothing really changes but the particulars adorning the institution.

We need no more wagging the dog. What we need are fewer leaders beholden to the general structure that has proven repeatedly to keep us always Fighting Baptists. We need leaders who will call the general structure to account. We need to dispense with the general structure, the as is. We need admit we have for too long worked to preserve what we have even when what we have suffers regular irruptions that betray our doctrinal and ethical commitments.

Dare I suggest we need progressive/prophetic leaders among us? These would be leaders who could identify when we are simply arguing about the particulars and who controls the narrative while the general structure that forms the foundation from which instances like LC rise. This is not unlike Land-gate from one year ago. Nor is there much difference in the way some high profile Southern Baptist leaders remain silent in the face of Mahaney-gate. I suspect a good Baptist historian could offer countless illustrations where these irruptions have occurred on all levels of Southern Baptist life.

Joshua and Drew represent an opportunity to act. They are not two young boys to be scapegoated. We cannot allow them to be used as the tail that wags the dog.

UPDATE: In the first version of this post I referenced Louisiana Baptist College. The name of the college is Louisiana College.

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Shredding: Discards Warm the Home

His home is little more than a very small travel trailer. I mean small. Caring for his mother requires him to be close. She lives next door.

Travel trailers may be spotted with small propane bottles affixed to the frame. Heat for cooking and maybe for warmth draw from this very small resource. However, this little home gets its heat from a small wood-burning stove.

Each year the price of a rick of wood increases. Worse yet the size of wood found in most ricks would not fit the small stove. Caring for his mother keeps him close. He works to help keep her assets in good working condition as they create her ongoing income. There is little time for him to work a normal job. The cost of elder care is prohibitive.

We stood talking one evening in the early Fall. It would not be long before the little place he called home would be cold. He asked, “Do you all have any shredding here at the church?” I replied, “We shred some things. But, not much. Why do you ask?” He shared that he has a device that takes paper shredding and turns it into small paper blocks suitable for burning in a small stove.

I told him we would keep our small bit of shredding for him. I also told him I knew of another source for shredded paper and I would be sure to stockpile it for him. I admit to questioning the viability of such a process.

Week after week he would come for a box of food, one for his mother and one for himself. He would then retrieve the shredding. He did not expect me to get it from where I stored it. He would get the bags of discarded paper turned small threads by a commercial spreader and put them in his car.

Would it work? Does it work? I have not seen the device. But, last week he came back in after getting his food boxes and checking the place for shredding. In is hands were two small paper blocks. He wanted me to have a couple of them to see just what he was talking about. Fascinating!

He then said, “I have just about enough to last me the next two years.” Two years! Those reading this blog do not heat their homes with small wood-burning stoves. Instead we have heaters that put out large numbers of BTUs. Our supplies are gas lines, propane tanks, or electric heaters. We do not look about for shredding. Paper. Someone else’s trash.

Our friendship began when he needed something for his mother he did not have, a wheelchair. Initially he was standoffish to those who gave up their Wednesday evening to serve those in our community. Some even reported that he came off quite unappreciative. The truth is his heart and mind we burdened. He had no one with whom he could talk.

One evening at the end of his tether we talked. In tears he described his life and experience. He longed for the hurt to go away. To this point he was doing all he could to present a very firm, solid exterior. He was Facebooking all of us. That is, he was presenting the best image of himself to others until he did not have the energy to continue.

I recall that evening and a few successive evenings. We talked about Good News. Yes, we talked about Jesus. At one point he indicated he understood and things had changed for him. Not quite the traditional way to confess faith. I sensed his skepticism. It was as if he had been down this road before. Promises of radical changes and an all’s well future may have been the stock and trade previous conversations partners presented to him.

What he seemed to be waiting for were those accompanying actions that made our conversation more than about me announcing, “We got one!” In fact, we do not get one. Over time his demeanor changed. No longer presenting as unappreciative, he thanked those who served effusively. His attention turned to ways he could help others. Something of a pay it forward.

We tend to eschew those descriptions. They are not exact enough for us. But, I am left thinking my new, old friend is slowly working his way in faith. I thought about some of the ways he has sought to express his thankfulness. It was not the lengths to which Zacchaeus went – paying back up to four times what he had wrongfully taken. But the impulse was the same. I must do something.

He never thought what he was doing came close to repaying. He did not convey his actions were an attempt to get him in continued good graces. Instead, in the simple, even kitschy, way he offered thankfulness moved beyond what we normally see when assembling to help others.

My new, old friend received from the abundance of someone’s excess shredding enough paper to create warmth for the next two years. The energy to create such a possibility could not even be described as minimal. It cost nothing. It is the same commodity all we who claim Jesus possess – friendship.

The real Gift is the one received without the hint of being put in debt to the Giver. Were we to consider that sort of friendship, we may re-evaluate the “with whom may I be friends” and flip the script to include a better possibility, “with whom may I not be friends.” The pattern of Jesus with Zacchaeus seems to eliminate our filtering out others in our pursuit of the radical friendship of Jesus.