November 7, 2008

Thanks Be to God

November is, by all accounts, a month for giving thanks. Our neighbors know that as well as we do. (Let the turkey consumption and the requisite napping commence.)

Still, the holy work of being grateful is not merely in experiencing the feeling but in naming our particular blessings before the Lord. By analogy, what good does it do my beloved for me to feel grateful for her place in my life if I do not also regularly name that thanksgiving to her? Gratitude is only as good as its specified return. I imagine it is not so different with the living God (Psalm 7:17). As the old song urges, “Count your many blessings. Name them one by one. See what God has done.”

This is one of the features I appreciate about Paul’s numerous epistles. The apostle practices specificity in his thanksgiving. He names before the Lord and before his congregations the particular textures of his gratitude—the spaces and places in which he sees the Spirit of God loose and living among them.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

So it is, in similar fashion, we baptized folk are called to name before the Lord that which has blessed us along our way. It’s not only a November thing to do, it’s a Christian thing—year round. What follows, then, are a few samples from my own growing list of recent thanksgivings to God—gratitude about you, as a congregation, as I come to know you more and more with each passing month.

For instance, I give thanks to God for the wonderful music you make to the Lord week after week. In recent years, you have stretched yourselves—some reluctantly, some joyfully, I’m sure—to lift up to God praise that is as varied as it is vibrant. I commend you for receiving this effort, and for sticking together around a matter that would surely undo a less mature congregation.

I give thanks to God for the strong sense of “What’s next?” I feel among you, especially among your elders and deacons. You are not a congregation the seems shackled to your past; so many of you seem genuinely curious about what the Spirit might yet be up to in your midst. I celebrate what I sense as a holy expectation about the coming years. After all, I suspect God is more interested in our willingness than in our expertise. Those first disciples knew little about what was in store, only that they must go when they sensed themselves called (Matthew 4:19).

More concretely, I give thanks for our sanctuary—the look, the feel, the shape, the function. It feels traditional but not stuffy, open but not rootless. To be sure, a church is not its building, yet the four walls that surround a people’s worship and work is not incidental, either. Space matters, to the extent it helps and does not hinder our calling to be the body of Christ in this place. The first time I walked into your Sunday space (during an interview last winter), I was struck by how handsome, how Reformed (word and sacraments—front and center), and how well-cared for the room is. All this says much about a congregation. It is an honor and a delight to be lead-worshipper among you on each Lord’s Day.

I give thanks that this congregation is, to say it one way, a womb for mission. Tables and shawls and compassion are born here. It feels to me like down deep in the psyche of this place there are old, deep, missional reverberations that will not let this fellowship turn wholly inward upon itself. Key decisions in the past often appear marked with an impulse to consider how you might be, more and more, in service and witness to neighbor and world. I hear: Let the paint chip a bit on the Social Hall baseboard, let the tan tile in the bathroom go another year—there’s mission beyond these walls to consider. I love it.

Finally, more personally, I give thanks to God for the ways in which you have welcomed my family and worried over their needs. What has for months been to us a new place is fast becoming for us our new home, and your gracious “hello” (beginning with those blessed bow-ties) has helped to make it so.

- - -

As I was leading my daughter through the trick-or-treat gauntlet that is Waugh Avenue on the night before Halloween, I bumped into a pack of middle school girls from our congregation, hard at work in their annual canvas. Suddenly one of them had a revelation: “Hey,” pointing at me in fresh realization, “you go to our church, don’t you?”

Indeed I do. A fact for which I am most grateful to the Lord.

November 6, 2008

From Symbol to Service

I'm thrilled about what Mr. Obama's election represents in the way of race relations in this country. As a child of the deep South, I am especially mindful of what it will mean come January to watch a black family move into our white house. Were she still alive, my paternal grandmother would be mortified at the sight. And for all my great love for her, my feeling is she would deserve the lonely company of her own pitiful indignation. "Pride cometh before a fall."

Still, the proof of Mr. Obama's greatness will be in the pudding of his decisions. The only thing wrong with the current brand of youthful idealism that has bumped him into office is its hasty willingness to elevate symbol too far over service. Any among us who choke on his skin color should be called out for what you are, but social progressives can also be (unwittingly) condescending when they look straight through a man and only see their cause on the other side. Symbols don't save. Said Ms. Doolittle to the Professor: "Don't talk of love. Show me."

After 72 hours of happy celebration, let us remember that symbolic figures are only as helpful to the common good as the quiet decisions they make behind closed doors. Thomas Friedman, himself in awe of this week, is still right to ask, "Obama will always be our first black president. But can he be one of our few great presidents?" To his query I add my own: Will he call us all to do the hard work of rebuilding our country by tightning our belts, or will he let us continue to think we can live today on tomorrow's bill?

Given the terribly complex matters we face at home and in the world, what will matter most in the end is how Mr. Obama inhabits his new role, how he functions as a consistent tone-setter and example. Words matter a great deal, but only those who have never had to make any hard decisions out on the lonely point of leadership would impulsively, even if innocently, smother the burden of private character under the blanket of public cause.

Hopefully, four years from now, we will not have had to choose between the two.

Mr. Obama, we celebrate the skin you are in. Absolutely we do. Still, what we need now is sagacious leadership--red or yellow, black or white.

November 5, 2008

Advent Talk

Like many important efforts dependent on clear thinking and hard work, "theology" has lately suffered a bum rap at the hands of those who assume it is the sole purview of brainy elites. (A colleague of mine landed in a new church. About the previous preacher one member gushed: “He was very smart. I couldn’t understand most of what he said.”) This is distressing for those of us invested in “equipping the saints” for thinking and living the faith.

Theos = “God.” Logi = “word, speech, utterance.”

Put them together and you get God-talk, God-speech. Add “Christian” as a sacred prefix, and suddenly the church finds itself in a living God-conversation anchored in the life and witness of the scandalous New Testament Jesus. Good theology (talk) requires a brain, but loses its necessary humility if it becomes brainy. It can get along better when propelled by intelligence, but wisdom is the more necessary ingredient. It is aided by the professionals who write and publish, but their work never supersedes ours.

Good Christian theology is the primary responsibility of the same inimitable congregations wherein that faith is first lived. Like politics, it is a local affair. Theos-speech is that daring act of discussing within our ranks what the astonishing life Jesus just might have to do with our own. Together we steward a strange and wonderful story about a baby precariously born to peasant parents, tendered in a feeding trough while visited by curious herders, and promised for generations as the agent of God’s new life for the world.

Now there’s a matter up for God-discussion.

Good theology asks: What does this tale have to do with our own?