Another local girl in the news

This little part of Virginia where we live is turning out a crop of notable 16-year-olds.  First Maddy Curtis made “American Idol” and now Ashley Caldwell from just down the other side of the road is in the Winter Olympics:

It’s hard to imagine that anyone enjoyed Friday night’s Opening Ceremony as much as Ashley Caldwell. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying much of anything as much as Caldwell, the youngest American on the U.S. team and a one-woman — one-girl? — ball of fire in her own right.

Precocious doesn’t begin to describe Caldwell, a 16-year-old freestyle aerialist who lived in Loudoun County — the beautifully named Hamilton, to be precise — until her family moved to Charleston, S.C., two years ago, around the time the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association selected her for its Elite Air Program in Lake Placid, N.Y. Here’s how Caldwell describes learning her journey to the Olympics:

“You just keep doing small jumps, you work up, you add twists and you add flips and eventually you're doing a full-double-full on snow and going to the Olympic Games.”

And because she made it sound so simple, she laughs. Caldwell laughs a lot. At a news conference for the aerial team, Caldwell — with all of three World Cup competitions under her belt — marched in, sat at Jeret Peterson’;s seat, and waited with a mischievous grin for someone — preferably Peterson — to notice and force her to move. Classic little sister move.

She has earned the right to give her teammates grief because in those three World Cup appearances, she had three top-15 finishes. That’s nothing to laugh at, but pretty much everything else Caldwell says and does is entertaining. During a question-and-answer session with the media, she professed her nervousness and then charmed the room, starting with, “None of this would have been possible without [veteran teammates] Emily Cook and Ryan St. Onge.” [Long pause, and then a deadpan delivery.] “I wasn’t told to say that.”

She wasn’;t done, either. Asked about her relationship with her teammates, she said: “They give you tons of advice. They’re helping us. I’m helping them retain their youth.”

via Tracee Hamilton – At 16, Olympian Ashley Caldwell’s exuberance is captivating – washingtonpost.com.

Her event will start February 20.

Repent

You are dust. And to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ash Wednesday by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot was one of the most important founders of the modernist movement in literature, a cutting-edge poet of the first order.  And yet he was converted to Christianity.  He also began calling himself a conservative and a classicist.  But he still wrote cutting-edge poems of the first order.  Among them is “Ash Wednesday,” which he wrote not too long after his baptism.  Here he writes about the Word of God, Christ as the still point of the whirling world, of the Church which he had newly joined (he was an Anglican) and which he personifies as the veiled sister.  An excerpt:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

. . . . . . . . .

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

via Ash Wednesday: Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot.

The emergent church meets the “Spirituality of the Cross”

I am very grateful to Dan, who had said that he was influenced by my book Spirituality of the Cross and, in answer to Paul McCain’s query, explained why. I am posting it here, even though it’s long, because you might have missed it. I offer it to you not because of the kind things he said about my book but because Dan gives some trenchant critiques, born of experience, to the emerging church and other cutting edge movements in American evangelicalism. It’s moving to hear his account of how he moved back into historic Christianity and how my book played a role in that (s.d.g.). It also demonstrates what I have long thought, that Lutheranism is the true emergent church, answering every one of its valid concerns and avoiding every one of its weaknesses. Here is what Dan says (and I urge you to follow up with his blog, linked below):

I’m comfortable posting here. There are a few prevalent ideas that are very popular in the house church crowd, and I have fallen prey to them for quite some time. In many ways I am still coming out of all this. I’m going to answer your question about Veith’s book in a very round-a-bout way, stay with me.

It is extremely couth to question authority and to doubt and challenge tradition in my generation. This comes as no surprise to most of you, but it is somehow embedded in my genes. In my personal observation (which may be very limited), it seems that most folks in my parents’ generation take the pastor’s word for it because they trust his authority. My generation doesn’t do that. You need to prove why I should trust you.

After reading Frank Viola’s “Pagan Christianity,” I had a lot of questions and plenty of ammo. I went to several local pastors (a few of them LCMS) and none of them could give me an intelligible response to the book. One pastor had read the book and was questioning his own tradition as a result – we were practically in the same boat. The book really set me on a path of rejecting the institutional church for a couple of years, and it caused me to really study church history and how our Christian practices came to be. Unfortunately, it set me on the wrong path, but my studies in church history set me straight (largely due to the fact that my wife is earning an M.A. in Theology, so good church history books are abundant in our house). While Viola and Barna make profound points about some church practices, their church history leaves a lot to be desired. Their “analysis” is a mishmash of outdated secondary sources, out-of-context quotations, unsupported hypotheses, and personal prejudices. Even worse, on those occasions where legitimate experts on the field are cited (i.e., Dom Gregory Dix, Paul F. Bradshaw, Alexander Schmeman) their views are taken so out of context as to have them seemingly ally with the authors when in fact their views are quite the opposite. But no pastors were able to tell me that. I had to do my own research. Sadly, I don’t think most folks who read this book will do the same, nor do many know how.

Despite having sorted through some of the faulty church history in “Pagan Christianity,” a lot of the ideology still stuck. Especially since it has been continually reinforced by books like “unChristian,” “Reimagining Church,” “Blue Like Jazz,” “Revolution,” “The Untold Story of the New Testament,” etc. In many ways, “Blue Like Jazz” got me started on this whole kick back when I attended Concordia Seward (prior to dropping out and leaving the church altogether). The book is still extremely popular in young adult circles, including in the LCMS.

Only within the last year or so have I begun to deconstruct the deconstruction, so to speak. I began by reading “Why We’re Not Emergent” and “Why We Love the Church,” both by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Those books helped me realize that “so much that passes for spirituality these days is nothing more than middle class, 20-something coffee culture. If you like jazz, soul patches, earth tone furniture, and lattes, that’s cool. But this culture is no holier than the McNugget, Hi-C, Value City, football culture that most people live in. Why does incarnational ministry usually mean hanging out at Starbucks instead of McDonalds?” (Kevin DeYoung, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/01/29/jesus-came-to-save-grimace-and).

But these books and all my research thus far still only brought me to a point where I essentially could respect the institutional church as a valid form of ministry, but I still thought it was the least effective approach and continued to hold most of my Viola/Barna-inspired prejudices.

The two prevailing areas of cognitive dissonance that I still retained at that point were:
1. The clergy/laity distinction
2. The sacred/secular dichotomy

These two areas are widely attacked by house church folks, and they make some pretty good arguments. Let me begin with the clergy/laity distinction. I blog frequently at prayeramedic.com, and you can actually watch my progression of thought on this issue. When first confronted with the idea that there is no hierarchy whatsoever in church leadership, and that church leaders have no authority over church members, I knew it was wrong. It went against Scripture. I immediately pointed this out: http://prayeramedic.com/2008/10/biblical-leadership/

You’ll see that I used Scripture to demonstrate that church leaders had genuine authority and that this was God-given. But then I read Viola’s book and continued to listen to the house church crowd. I then wrote this post: http://prayeramedic.com/2008/10/secular-job/

That’s a huge shift in a VERY short period of time. The subtle deception that I didn’t recognize at the time is co-mingling the two issues I listed above into being one and the same. In fact, I probably need to take down this blog post – but I’ll leave it up for now.

In many ways, I was right. The things I have been griping about in the church are extremely prevalent in mainstream evangelical churches. The pastor is more of a CEO than a spiritual leader and so much of what is being passed off as spirituality is empty emotions, false hope, deception, manipulation, etc. It didn’t help that my wife and I were extremely jaded by the church. I was serving as a young adult minister in a Pentecostal church where things got out of hand and my wife was asked to leave (but I was not). To make a long story short, we left then got mixed up in a United Pentecostal cult (denies Trinity, requires baptism in Jesus’ name only), we left there and got into some wacky charismaniac groups, then we found “mainstream” churches that might as well have called their sermons “motivational speaking” or “lessons in morality.” It was all so shallow and insincere, and so fake. It’s no wonder that the house church message was so appealing.

The postmodern mantra seems to be “authenticity,” “community,” “experiential,” “participatory,” etc. and that appeals to someone who has only seen fake, inauthentic expressions of faith that have more to do with making people feel good about themselves. I also was struggling with some major sin issues and so were many other folks I knew, but the church was not a place we felt free to confess these things. Nor was it a place where we felt welcome to be ourselves. To most folks Church is just a cultural thing, something they do, not something they are. The house church mantra cries out that the church is an organism, not an organization. This still appeals to me in many ways.

And we can learn a lot from house church folks. But their fatal flaw is dismissing the institutional church, altogether. Both are valid ministry models that can coexist – and each has its unique strengths and weaknesses.

Enter Veith’s book. I started looking for books on spirituality, and I found “Grace Upon Grace” by Kleinig. I started reading it and enjoyed it, but I found his writing style difficult to stick with for lengthy periods of time, kind of like reading Kierkegaard or ancient church literature. I then found “Spirituality of the Cross.” Remember that my main two issues were clergy/laity and sacred/secular.

Veith’s writing style was so easy to read and approachable that I read the book in only a few sittings (similar to Viola/Barna books). Veith really threw me off guard by building a comprehensive model of spirituality and avoiding intellectual quibbles. The answer to the sacred/secular problem is the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and the answer to clergy/laity is the doctrine of the vocation. People had told me this before, but only in theological terms. Veith explained these doctrines in an authentic way, explaining them in a way that actually made me consider how I should live in light of these truths – not just how I should think.

He immediately tore down the false approaches to God from Koberle: moral, intellectual and mystical. Even though I had heard Koberle’s ideas before, the way Veith explained it made me go “aha!” I got it. His talk about the presence and hiddenness of God was profound as well. I always viewed the Lutheran view of the Sacraments as being only slightly removed from Catholicism. I basically figured that Catholicism was so ingrained in Luther that he didn’t want to stray far in the means of grace doctrines. But Veith clearly explained the mystery and beauty of these means in a practical way.

I was so confused after all of my experience with charismatic churches and the general teachings of the prosperity gospel and positive confession that are so prevalent in American Christianity. Veith really helped draw the big picture for me, what spirituality really looks like. It isn’t so much about “doing big things for God,” as it is about yielding to God in the small things and recognizing how many big things God IS DOING that we neglect, like what He accomplishes through His means of grace and regular worship.

I felt as though I had been lied to and deceived by Christianity, as though I had fallen prey to a “bait and switch” tactic. But God had been working all along, I had simply been taught to seek Him according to my own will, not His.

Also Veith, citing C.S. Lewis, helped me realize that by spending all my time in limbo I was missing out on true community. The entire time I thought that the traditions and customs were the culprit, but I came to realize that sin and human depravity was the real issue. I had been imposing impossible ideals on the people of God, looking for a perfect church in many ways. I didn’t think this was the case, I would claim I wanted an authentic church, not a perfect church. Veith showed me that as a child of God, I often don’t even want the right things. What I need most is often not what I desire. There’s far more authenticity in bad coffee, hard pews, and people of all generations who aren’t very cool and often aren’t very intellectual than there is in coffee shops, smartly-dressed people, and haughty lounges with only folks from one generation who think they know everything. When you think about it, the emergent church is really only a white, suburban, 18-35 yr old movement. That is very limited and is not cross-generational and interracial (issues the emergent church often critique mainstream evangelicals for). Jesus died for all people of all nations, races, and languages – not just for a select group of haughty young adults.

All in all, Veith challenged me to think critically about my presuppositions. He showed me that I was simply chasing after another fad, setting myself up for another disappointment and further disillusionment. All the while I was seeking authenticity, truth, community, experiences with God, and to be used by God. Veith made it clear that I have been misdiagnosing the issue altogether. The problem isn’t a lack of these things, the problem is sin. The answer is the cross. This is the only true spirituality. This is the only true contentment. I must seek Christ, all these other things flow only from that. When we put the cart before the horse we end up with another man-made institution, even if it meets in homes.

I still have unanswered questions (end times, women in ministry, etc.), but these are not as important as the central issues: Jesus Christ, sin and forgiveness, the cross. I had been struggling a lot with daily prayer prior to reading Veith’s book. After reading it I came to see that in many ways, tradition keeps me safe. Tradition is not always bad. I traditionally wash every morning, and that keeps me from smelling like a farm animal. I now use “Treasury of Daily Prayer” to get in the Word and pray daily, and it works for me. Before I would have never done this, claiming it would be “quenching the Spirit” and binding me in traditions. But you know what? For all my complaints, I wasn’t praying. Now I am. The simple format makes it harder for my flesh to get distracted. I’m a lot weaker than I used to think I was. I am far more dependent on Christ than I realized. This is humbling. This is almost humiliating. But I was wrong. I NEED Jesus. I NEED His grace. I NEED structure. I NEED accountability. I NEED fellowship. And the house church movement made me doubt and mistrust the very things that could have brought me freedom. All relationships are guarded and preserved by structure. Try telling your wife after you’ve had an affair, “Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts.” I’ve learned to embrace the structure, rather than fight it and “deconstruct” it.

So I am probably rambling now. The bottom line is that through reading Veith’s book, the Holy Spirit has taught me some important things (and He continues to do so). I have learned that Jesus Christ is the focal point of Christianity, not authenticity, community or anything else. This fact requires that we live differently, not simply pay lip service to this fact intellectually while practically pursuing other things. If Jesus Christ is at the center of our spirituality then a lot of things are different. I still agree with many of my gripes about mainstream churches, but the Lutheran faith offers something more stable than the changing winds of most of these groups (in most cases), it simply points me to Jesus.

Churches structured like businesses

Walter Russell Mead at the American Interest invokes Luther’s reforms and claims that the church today needs another structural reformation:

The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth.  The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today.  They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.

Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination).  Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners.  And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year.  The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try.  People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.

At the next level up, there is another level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and officials staffing regional offices.  . . .

Bishops today in their sinking, decaying dioceses surround themselves with large staffs who hold frequent meetings and no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, although nobody outside the office ever quite knows what these are.  And it isn’t just Anglicans.  Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, UCC, the whole crowd has pretty much the same story to tell.  Staffs grow; procedures flourish and become ever more complex; more and more years of school are required from an increasingly ‘professional’ church staff: everything gets better and better every year — except somehow the churches keep shrinking.  Inside, the professionals are pretty busy jumping through hoops and writing memos to each other and grand sweeping statements of support for raising the minimum wage and other noble causes — but outside the regional headquarters and away from the hum of the computers and printers, local congregations lose members, watch their buildings fall year by year into greater disrepair, and in the end they close their doors. . . .

Finally, denominations maintain national staffs — both individually and collectively. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others have national headquarters and/or lobbying presences in Washington; they also join to support a national staff for the NCCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ). Again it is rather mysterious what these organizations all do — but it is clear that if any of their work is directed at promoting the growth of the congregations of their respective denominations or of increasing church membership in other ways, they have little but failure to show for the millions of dollars they’ve spent over the years.

We Missouri Synod Lutherans are considering a big restructuring, but it doesn’t sound like it would address what Mead is calling for and might even, from his perspective, make it worse. He is calling for decentralization, networks of house churches, and clergy without professional degrees. What do you think of his diagnosis and proposed treatment?

via Walter Russell Mead’s Blog – The American Interest.

HT: Joe Carter

Fat Tuesday

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. As a result, this is traditionally the day known as Fat Tuesday, during which people indulged in whatever they were going to give up for Lent. That devolved into the decadent hedonism associated with carnival or Mardi Gras, though it doesn’t need to. I will mark the day by NOT exercising and NOT watching what I eat, in preparation for the healthy regimen I am planning that will start the next day. I will also NOT listen through the Psalms chanted–which our pastor is going to be sending out via midi files–and I will NOT start reading Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation.

No, we are under any obligation to fast or do without or start positive 40-day projects. But it’s a convenient time to do things that are good to do anyway. And the pangs of cravings and the twinges of seldom-used muscles will be useful reminders that I am dust and to dust I shall return.

Is anyone planning any Lenten disciplines that might give the rest of us some ideas?